Christian County and Owensboro Catholic come into this weekend's state softball tournament ranked No. 1 and No. 2, but their coaches are aware of many capable challengers.
Six teams ranked in the state's top 10 will be in the field when play starts Friday at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro.
No. 4 North Laurel, last year's state runner-up, once again represents Region 13. No. 5 Mercy beat third-ranked Ballard to win the 7th Region. Allen County-Scottsville and North Hardin are ranked sixth and 10th in the state.
Christian County, eliminated last year by Owensboro Catholic, has a record of 38-3, and its only two in-state losses have come against the Lady Aces.
"We've been fortunate to beat them twice," Owensboro Catholic Coach George R andolph said. He said he voted the Colonels No. 1 in the pre-season because of all the their returning talent.
Owensboro Catholic, making its ninth straight appearance at the state tournament, opens against Conner.
"This is something that never gets old," said Randolph, who lost five seniors from last year's team. "I don't think anybody expected us to be here. I think they kind of took it as a challenge. It's nice to have made it back."
Christian County Coach David Joiner said his half of the bracket "has several teams that people might predict might win it." But nemesis Owensboro Catholic is in the other half of the bracket.
Christian County will face Shelby County in the first round.
"Some of our comparable opponents, (Shelby County) played them real well. They're a fine team. (They have) several kids that swing the bat well," he said.
After being represented for the last two years by Scott County, the 11th Region sends Franklin County to the state tournament. Lexington schools didn't last long — all three that advanced to the regional tournament were eliminated in the first round (Bryan Station by Madison Central, Lafayette by Franklin County and Lexington Catholic by Scott County). The Flyers beat the Cardinals 5-1 in the regional finals.
"It's a tough field of teams," said Franklin County Coach Tracy Spickard, whose team opens against Estill County.
Spickard said she regularly schedules strong opponents during the season to prepare her team for the tournament.
"That's just a philosophy our coaching staff has had for years," she said. "We want the opportunity for our kids to have their talent showcased."
Absent from this year's tournament is Greenwood, which won the last two state titles. Greenwood was eliminated in the 4th Region semifinals by Allen County-Scottsville, which will play No. 22 Garrard County. The game is a rematch of the one the Patriots won 7-1 earlier this season.
"They have an excellent team," Allen County-Scottsville Coach Rick Roberts said, noting Garrard County's win over Southwestern in the 12th Region semifinals.
Roberts also said Mercy has what it takes to make a deep run in the tournament. "Anybody who limps out of that region has to be a good team," he said.
Allen County-Scottsville "is the best hitting team in the 15 years we've had the program," Roberts said. Shortstop Emma Napier leads the Patriots with 56 hits and four home runs.
"Emma's maybe the best hitter we've ever had," he said.
In the other first round games, Mercy faces Ashland Blazer, North Hardin takes on Marshall County, Montgomery County plays North Laurel, and Johnson Central plays Pleasure Ridge Park.