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April 13, 2012
Northwest Montana A Conference


Western Montana teams dominate state softball predictions

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Softball season is in full swing now that teams have started their conference schedules or will get them started this weekend. Billings Central played its first Eastern A game of the season on Thursday, topping Hardin 11-1 in six innings at Stewart Park.

AA teams, for the most part, started conference play last week, and it should be a tight race in the Eastern AA. You could make a case for five or six teams to win the conference’s top seed for the state tournament. I briefly broke down the Eastern AA in a blog a couple weeks ago.

With the A and AA teams into conference play – and B-C teams set to start soon if they haven’t already – now is as good of time as any to post my state softball predictions. (Note: In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make predictions for the softball season. But I saw that Richie Melby posted his predictions at krtv.com, so I figured I better get in on the fun.)

Here goes nothing:

AA Softball

As I’ve said, the Eastern AA looks like it will be a battle through the entire season. Gone are the likes of Kirstie Thomas (Billings Senior), Jessyka MacDonald (Billings West), and Jaimee Paffhausen (Butte), but there are still some talented players and teams in the conference.

Billings Skyview is getting production at the plate from some underclassmen and looks good early on, Great Falls High has most of its team returning, and Great Falls CMR is looking to have a bounce-back year after not qualifying for the state tournament in 2011.

Billings Senior has been inconsistent to start the 2012 campaign, but the Broncs could be a complete, dangerous team by the end of the season. You have to expect Billings West and Butte to take a step or two back from last season, but those programs are usually pretty good at reloading. Bozeman is a wildcard in the conference but is probably chasing the other six teams.

Eastern AA predicted order of finish: Billings Skyview, Great Falls CMR, Billings Senior, Great Falls High, Billings West, Butte, Bozeman.

In the Western AA, it sounds like Helena Capital is the clear-cut favorite. The Bruins have one of the best pitching tandems in the state with Jessie Apple and Jordan Petersen. Capital cruised through conference play last season, finishing 12-0 in the West.

Beyond the Bruins, it looks to be a pretty tight race in the Western AA. Helena, Missoula Sentinel, and Missoula Hellgate (especially down the stretch) all look like they could challenge for the conference’s No. 2-seed. From what I’ve heard – which, granted, isn’t a lot – those four teams are probably the front-runners for the state tournament. Missoula Big Sky, Kalispell Glacier, and Kalispell Flathead round out the conference.

Western AA predicted order of finish: Helena Capital, Missoula Sentinel, Helena, Missoula Hellgate, Missoula Big Sky, Kalispell Flathead, and Kalispell Glacier.

State championship prediction: Helena Capital over Great Falls CMR.

A Softball

12 teams reach the State A tournament with the top seeds from each conference getting first-round byes. Belgrade, Billings Central, Frenchtown, and Polson were the four No. 1-seeds last year, but that will change for 2012. During the offseason, Frenchtown moved to the Northwestern A with Polson.

On paper, the Northwestern A looks like the strongest division in the state with the past five state champions hailing from the conference. All-conference pitcher Shalaina Duford is back in the circle for the defending champion Pirates, while Frenchtown counters with all-state pitcher Abby Indreland. Both players are juniors.

Moving to the Central A, the conference is Belgrade’s to lose if past seasons are any indication. The Panthers are annually one of the top teams in the class and are the preseason favorite in the Central A again. Lewistown – in its third year as a varsity program – and Havre appear to be the Panthers’ top challengers.

Regardless of sport, you can always put Billings Central and Laurel near the top of the standings in the Eastern A. The Rams and Locomotives figure to battle for the conference crown again this year behind their returning all-conference pitchers. Tara Russell takes the circle for Laurel, while Alexa Rockwell is Central’s ace.

After winning two games at the state tournament in 2011, Anaconda could be the top team in the Southwestern A in 2012. The Copperheads return the bulk of last year’s lineup, including all-conference pitcher-catcher tandem Brooke Chapman and Courtney Moodry. Butte Central – after moving over from the Central A – and Corvallis could challenge Anaconda at the top of the standings.

State tournament teams:

East – Billings Central, Laurel, Miles City

Central – Belgrade, Lewistown, Havre

Southwest – Anaconda, Butte Central, Corvallis

Northwest – Polson, Frenchtown, Libby

State championship prediction: Polson over Frenchtown

B-C Softball

In B-C softball in Montana the conversation usually starts with the Stillwater Renegades. Stillwater has won four of the last five state championships and finished second the year it didn’t win the final. Renegades coach John Smith said his team knows they’re viewed as the “team to beat.”

“They way I look at it, we have a pretty big bulls-eye on us right now,” Smith explained before the season. “I think a lot of teams would like to beat us.

“I told the girls ‘you be as good as you can be. Don’t worry about being as good as anybody else.’ It’s a long season. It just depends on how good you are at the end.”

At the end, the Renegades are typically one of the last teams standing and very well could be in the mix again this year. The favorites, though, according to Smith, come from the Western B-C.

“Florence, they finished third at State last year, and I think they were like 90 percent sophomores,” Smith said. “I think they’ll be back. (Missoula) Loyola always has a solid program.”

St. Ignatius, Deer Lodge, and Ronan will likely duke it out for the two spots at the state tournament behind Florence and Loyola.

In the East, Shepherd has a solid team back and might be the co-favorite in the conference with Stillwater. Glasgow, Shelby, Colstrip, and Conrad are other teams to keep an eye on.

State tournament teams:

East – Shepherd, Stillwater, Glasgow, Shelby

West – Florence, Missoula Loyola, St. Ignatius, Ronan

State championship prediction: Florence over Missoula Loyola

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