The Owensboro Health/KHSAA State Softball Tournament begins Thursday at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro.
It is the last year the tournament will use a double-elimination format to determine its champion. All eight first-round games will be played Thursday night with winners' and consolation bracket games to be played through Friday and Saturday, culminating in a championship game Saturday afternoon.
Here are five things to watch for this weekend.
East Carter brings a 37-0 record into the tournament. It is the first team to enter unblemished since ... East Carter two years ago.
The Raiders in 2016 were 34-0 and fell to East Jessamine, 7-4, in the first round before winning three games in the consolation bracket. Unfortunately, losing on the first day means having to win eight games over a two-day period to win the state title, something no team has done in the history of the tournament (McCracken County came extremely close that same year, though, after forcing a second finals game against Scott County).
East Carter wants an unbeaten season and its first state title. The Raiders are ranked No. 1 in the nation by MaxPreps but second in the state to Scott County, whom they couldn't meet until the winners' bracket finals if both stay unbeaten this weekend. For that to happen East Carter first has to get by Butler, its first-round opponent which scored five runs against the Raiders earlier this season, the most any team has put up against them this year.
Twenty-seven of East Carter's opponents were shut out, many by likely Miss Softball winner Montana Fouts, who has signed with the University of Alabama.
2.) Birds' third?
Scott County played one of the toughest schedules in the state and suffered just one in-state loss this season — 1-0 at Ballard.
A rematch with the Bruins couldn't happen until the winner's bracket finals, the Cardinals are expected to reach. Their first-round game on paper is one of the toughest — Apollo, ranked eighth in the state — but Scott County defeated the E-gals 7-0 earlier this season. No. 4 Christian County, a potential third-round opponent, could make for an exciting matchup: the Colonels are unbeaten against Kentucky competition and picked up several wins over respectable competition this season.
Most tab the 11th Region champs as the favorite to win it all. Most of their players were part of the 2016 title run and a few were members of the 2014 state champion. Checking both those boxes is ace pitcher Kennedy Sullivan, a Western Kentucky signee who claimed tournament MVP honors in 2016.
A third title would tie Scott County with Greenwood and Reidland for second-most in state history. Owensboro Catholic leads the way with five.
3.) Area elite
Central Kentucky should be represented well beyond Scott County.
Boyle County would be a tempting sleeper pick if a likely second-round matchup with the Cardinals, to whom it lost 5-0 earlier in the year, didn't loom. The Rebels, making their fourth appearance overall, played a killer in-state schedule and when they didn't win, the losses were close enough to make you think twice about picking against them here. Pitchers Katy Grace Chadwell and Kelly Lay both won 13 games this season and are just a tick above a 2.00 ERA.
First-time state participant Bourbon County will take on Oldham County, making its first trip since 2013 and fifth overall, in a battle of Colonels. If it gets past Oldham, Bourbon likely would see Christian County in the next round, meaning it could be a short trip for the 10th Region champion. However long it lasts, it'll be a great learning experience for Bourbon, which will return 16 of its 17 players next season.
4.) Fresh face
Bourbon County isn't the only new blood in this year's event.
Clay County (29-1) brings a 12-game win streak into the tournament and defeated South Laurel, 12-2, in the 13th Region championship to secure its first state appearance. Its only loss was to Corbin, later avenged in the region semifinals.
The Tigers did not venture far from Regions 13-15, generally considered the sport's weakest, but did pick up a win in their only game against an opponent outside of those regions (5-4 over eventual 44th District champion Madison Southern). Clay County also defeated 14th Region champ Estill County and 16th Region champ Pikeville in neutral-site contests on the same weekend in April.
Brianda Owens, a junior, is 22-1 in the circle with a 1.26 ERA and bats .421.
Marshall County made one state appearance before in 2009 but won this year's 1st Region tournament, which for the last four years was ruled by McCracken County. Ballard Memorial stunned the Mustangs in the region semis; David slayed Goliath, but then Marshall County slayed David, 6-5, in the finals.
Warren East comes to state for the third but the second time in the last four seasons. The Raiders in the regular season dropped two meetings with South Warren but overcame the Spartans in the 14th District championship and again in the 4th Region finals.
Apollo's only prior trip was in 2014. The E-Gals rolled through the 3rd Region tournament, outscoring their opponents 24-0, and didn't shy away from top-level competition during the regular season.