River Valley bowed out of last year's Division III softball tournament, losing in the semifinals to eventual champ Catalina Foothills. Most of the divisions last year -- save Division I -- were a mess because realignment procedures allowed schools to petition up or down. A strong argument can be made it did more harm than good and bordered on being unfair.
Fortunately, the 3A Conference and other small conferences have returned to an equitable state with the usual guideline of student population governing alignment. Perennial contenders Winslow, Safford, Show Low and Empire -- to name a few -- were eliminated early last year in D-III facing teams competing now at a high level in 6A, 5A and 4A where they should have been all along.
With the flaw remedied, look forward to a better tournament. River Valley as the top seed, has the experience and ability to live up to that prowess along with the traditional strong teams from the East and South. East and South qualified 8 of the 16 teams in this year's tournament. It figures to be a dogfight once the field is narrowed to the quarterfinalists.
Here's a peek at some of he teams likely to be there when the tournament reaches that stage on May 5:
RIVER VALLEY (20-5): With at least seven players who played extensively for last seasons's 23-9 semifinalists, the Dust Devils enter state without a power-ranking loss. The West Region champions are led by senior pitcher Regan Glenn, who sports an 18-5 record and 1.22 earned-run average. She hasn't lost to a 3A school this season and has 197 strikeouts in 126 innings. Four of the returning seven are batting better than .400 with most of the run production coming from Tiana Williams, Ashley Carter and Lauryn Nicander. River Valley hasn't faced a lot of quality 3A opponents, but it's dominated those it has played. The Dust Devils have two losses to Arizona schools -- top-5 teams in 6A (Sandra Day O'Connor) and 5A (Verrado).
SAFFORD (25-4): The Bulldogs had their way with their region opponents and also fared well in games against some of the better 3A teams outside of their region. They defeated Winslow and Snowflake and split a couple games with Show Low. Safford depends mostly on its pitching and defense. Doing the job in the circle is sophomore Kristen Cocke. Cocke is 24-4 and registered 369 Ks in 172 innings. She's also hitting .565. Middle infielders Celica Klajda (.550) and Andrea Rios (.485) have combined for 4 homers and 73 RBI. Safford was 1-1 in last year's D-III tournament beating a current 4A team (Gila Ridge) and losing to a current 5A team (Poston Butte).
YUMA CATHOLIC (15-7-1): The Shamrocks have suffered only one loss to a 3A opponent -- most of the rest were to 6A or 5A schools in invitationals. Senior Alyssa Matus gets most of the work in the circle and sports a 7-2 record. Offense revolves around sophomore Jocelyn Hernandez (.507, 28 RBI), freshman Natalie Hernandez (.471, 27 RBI) and seniors Jessica Padilla (.423, 19 RBI) and Bryanna Wiley (.444).
SHOW LOW (21-7): The Cougars went down to the wire to edge Winslow for the 3A East Region title in arguably the toughest region top to bottom in the conference. Show Low won 9 of 10 region games, a region that saw all six of its teams qualify for play-in games/or state. Show Low returned practically its entire team from last year and longtime coach Carl Nix has a team solid team in every facet. Pitcher Lauren Clark isn't a flame thrower, but knows how to pitch. Cousin and catcher Tia Clark can mash. The infield defense is dynamic with 2B Kaylee Hall, shortstop Haley Housely and 3B Megan Reidhead. Defense and lefty slappers with speed reside in he outfield with Makenzie Isaacs and Payge Kerr.
WINSLOW (21-8): The Bulldogs endured a rare miss to postseason last year, only because they played up in Division II. Back in the 3A they are a team to be reckoned with again. Seniors Gabrielle Gonzalez (.552, 5 HR, 30 RBI) and T. Wilson (.405, 34 RBI) plus junior M. Thomas (.409, 26 RBI) are tough outs. The work in the circle centers on sophomore Justine Butterfield (10-5, 3.35 ERA) and freshman Jordyn Johnson (6-1, 2.32 ERA).
SNOWFLAKE (21-11): The Lobos advanced to the quarterfinals last year and remain good enough to contend to the end. Offensively they sport a solid lineup all the way through with regulars all hitting .300 to .400. Junior Hallie McCray (.405, 3 HR, 22 RBI), Shaelee Hensley (.386, 24 RBI) and Hallie Bauer (.370, 26 RBI) are the most productive. Senior Breklee Tanner has stepped up in the circle with 11 wins. Snowflake returned three seniors with varsity playing time. For the rest it is their first meaningful time on varsity.
NORTH POINTE PREP (17-8): The Falcons finished third in their region, but still managed an automatic berth at state since they were a top-8 team in the final power rankings. North Pointe is a young tema with few seniors filling key roles. Top player is sophomore pitcher Reyna Caudillo, who is hitting .662 with 10 HR and 41 RBI. Two other sophomores help fuel the offense Sophia Rabayda (.446) and Sara Strey (.416). Junior Josh Martin is hitting .446.
CASTEEL (19-9): The Colts first season in varsity competition has them in the mix for a deep run. Casteel's roster consists of all sophomores and freshmen at a school that won't be 3A for long. Sophomores supply the offensive punch -- Lael Swank (.511, 7 HR, 30 RBI), Melissa Lundberg (.493, 7 HR, 31 RBI), Kaia Langaker (.420, 3 HR, 38 RBI) and Hope Hanson (.433, 27 RBI). Sophomore Rae Sultzbach sports a 14-4 record and 2.48 ERA. She was the winning pitcher in a pair of triumphs over North Pointe.
SABINO (16-8): The Sabercats won the South Region in a tough battle with Pusch Ridge. who also advanced to the 16-team field. Sabino knocked off Chino Valley in a play-in game to advance. Younger players are leading the way on a well-rounded team. Sophomore catcher Cassie Casteneda (.547), freshman shortstop Sydney Gray (.551) and junior first baseman Gabby Ramirez (.443). Sabino has three solid pitchers waiting for their name to be called each game -- senior Elizabeth Lyon and sophmores Hannah Stark and Danielle Kirchhoffer.
SAHUARITA (22-10): The Mustangs run-ruled Blue Ridge in a play-in game to reach state. The are led by senior third baseman Jessica Lozania (.434), and sophomores Hailey Tanori (.657) and Solymar Navarro (.464). Navarro is the best run producer with 4 HR and 47 RBI. Sahuarita has used five different starting pitchers at various points during the season.
EMPIRE (22-9-1): The Ravens won a play-in game handily over Northwest Christian for the right to face Winslow in the opening round. Junior catcher Emma Garbutt has been the spot-on hitter leading the team in RBI and clutch hits. Other players to watch are senior outfielders Noelle Kerr and Jadyn Duncan and junior pitcher Jaden Romero. Empire has slowed down some after a 12-0-1 start, but can't be taken lightly.