Softball invitationals are over so everything left on schedules through the end of April matters. After watching teams the last five weeks, eight teams are viable candidates to claim the Division I state title when temperatures flirt with or surpass the century mark come May.
Here's the list of schools I believe are in the hunt, broken down as follows:
TOP OF THE HEAP
Red Mountain: Props to theeast-side Lady Lions for winning the last four titles. It's no small feat -- not in softball or baseball. One bad hop here, one miscue there, one bloop hit here can end a run or begin/extend a magical one. Red Mountain has bucked the odds four times. Red Mountain has struggled defensively in its infield at times this season and losing the potent bat of Ashley Hill to injury is a blow. The Lions still have ample hitting and its pitching is as good as any with three-time-title-game-winning-pitcher Bre Macha still slinging. Red Mountain faces three consecutive tough games this week -- Tuesday home vs. Chaparral, Wednesday at Desert Ridge and Thursday at Horizon. A chance for Rich Hamilton's crew to serve notice in a rather big way they're the team to beat.
Mountain Ridge: Mountain Ridge has been that close-but-no-cigar-team recently at state. The west-side Lady Lions opened the season winning 14 of 15, including a shutout of Red Mountain. Mountain Ridge endured tough times besting Red Mountain in years gone by losing four times to them at state during Red Mountain's four-year reign. Mountain Ridge, however, may be as formidable as ever this season. Mountain Ridge is solid in all facets with speed and power in its lineup. Leading the way are senior Corrin Green and juniors Kaylin Ayotte and Bailey Gaffin to name a few. Figured these Lady Lions might be the ones to win the Desert Mountain Invitational this year, but Horizon thwarted them in the first round of the Elite 8 bracket. All of Mountain Ridge's losses thus far are to contenders Horizon, Gilbert and Hamilton.
Chaparral: The D-I runner-ups from last year are in the mix with hard-throwing lefty Dallas McBride on their side. McBride has come on to pitch like the 2013 McBride after a slow start to the season with leg woes. McBride tore through lineups in the Desert Mountain Invite, helping the Lady Firebirds to the final and runner-up finish with a bunch of shutouts. Chaparral has seven starters back in its lineup -- most pecking away with .300 or betteraverages led by McBride's .467 average, 8 homers and 30 RBI. After dropping four of its first six games, Chaparral has won 10 of its last 11 with the only loss to impressive D-II title favorite Sahuaro.
Horizon: Horizon seemingly gets a well-pitched game from junior standout T Statman every time out, plus the offense the three-year starter brings. The Lady Huskies, more often than not, have trouble scoring runs so rely heavily on Statman much like Mesa Mountain View did in recent years with ace Val Kaff. Horizon won the Desert Mountain Invitational in 2013 and had a shot again this year after edging Mountain Ridge, 3-1, in its bracket opener. Horizon can win it all if it manages four runs a game and plays solid defense. That's been a tall order so far against elite foes it's faced. The Lady Huskies losses are one-run defeats to Gilbert, Chaparral, Canyon del Oro and Chandler. It has 3-1 and 3-2 wins over Mountain Ridge and Basha, respectively.
FOUR MORE IN THE MIX
Basha: Basha can hit with anyone, but to this point not sure its pitching can match that of the aforementioned schools. It's hard to outslug opponents to a state title. Basha has won when it's had that elite pitcher -- i.e. -- Sam Parlich. Coach Scott Hoffmeyer has a veteran lineup that features six .300-plusr hitters. It's only losses so far are to Gilbert, Horizon and D-II Ironwood Ridge (twice).
Gilbert: Gilbert has a history of hanging with the better teams, but has not been able to reach the pinnacle or go particularly deep at state come tourney time. The Lady Tigers have the ingredients to win, but have to click on all cylinders all the time to reach ultimate success. Lynsey Duncan holds her own in the circle and there is plenty of pop with standout shortstop Dani Nelson and catcher Taylor McCord. Gilbert has struggled scoring runs in comparison to the other top contenders -- only 88 in 18 games. That's 20 fewer than all the other contenders named here in a similar number of games.
Hamilton: Hamilton has made a huge leap this season from a borderline state tourney qualifer to perhpas a top 8, first-round bye club. Pitching and improved offense have allowed the Lady Huskies to step up along with outstanding speed at the top of the lineup. They've held their own against contenders in head-to-head battles going 4-3 with the likes of Red Mountain and Mountain Ridge, who they've defeated, Sahuaro and Greenway. Back-to-back games this week with Basha and Gilbert are further tests.
Desert Ridge: Desert Ridge was the surprising newcomer to the final six last year in D-I and returns a bunch of seasoned players. The Lady Jaguars are at 11-4 led by the pitching of Bailey Klitzke and Courtney O'Brien. They keep Desert Ridge in games. A lineup with three hitters above .400 or just slightly below lead the offense. Most games the Lady Jaguars play are tight, low-scoring affairs. Marquee wins so far have come vs. Chaparral and Skyline. It's losses are to capable D-II foes Verrado and Raymond Kellis and in D-I to Xavier and Desert Vista. The April schedule is rigorous with games vs. Red Mountain, Basha, Gilbert (two) and Hamilton.
****Skyline: Skyline's transformation is arguably the best story of the year in D-I. A four-win team last year, new coach Annie Lockwood and her staff have molded an increasingly confident, young team to heights unprecedented in the school's 15 years of competition. While its current 14-2 record and 13-game winning streak is outstanding, the Lady Coyotes must prove their mettle in a stretch April 16 through April 25. That's when games crop up with Red Mountain, Horizon and Chaparral. Skyline is yet to play and defeat a D-I title challenger. The Lady Coyotes played Desert Ridge tough in their last loss in late February, a 4-2 defeat.