Nathan Ryver has noticed something.
Fleming County's softball coach has led the Lady Panthers (21-17 last season) to three 61st District titles (2009-10 and last season) in the last four years. He used to think you could pencil in his team and Rowan County to the 16th Region Tournament for at least three good reasons: both teams reached at least the regional semifinals in ’09 and last year; Rowan County was the region runner-up four years ago; both won at least 20 games in two of the last three seasons, and the 2009 Lady Vikings finished at 23-18.
“This is the first year I can remember three teams can win it,” Ryver said. “Us and Rowan County, (and) Menifee County is scary. I don't want to play (Menifee County) in the first round.”
The most frightening of Menifee County's players? It's likely junior pitcher Erika Brewer, for at least two reasons — she struck out nearly 300 last year, and her 12.34 strikeouts per game average was eighth best in the state.
Brewer's coach, Kevin Hale, could possibly talk for hours about her if you let him.
“She's a powerful pitcher with a lot of movement,” Hale said. “She's got a lot of stamina. She can pitch a lot of games; she can pitch three and four games back to back.”
Brewer is also the most visible part of a resurgent program in Frenchburg. Menifee County's 16-11 record in 2012 was the first over-.500 season in Hale's first four seasons — not bad for a team that won only twice in 2008.
“(When) I took over, we started a new program,” Hale said. “We just spent a lot of time with (the players), is probably the easiest thing to say.”
Menifee County is still a relatively young team; freshman Elizabeth Dotson is the starting catcher, and sophomores Allie Lawson and Allie Heaton are the second baseman and shortstop, respectively. Two seniors, center fielder Paige Warren (who concentrated on basketball and didn't play last year) and outfielder Haley Lane, should also start.
Fleming County lost three starters from the 2012 squad. Ryver doesn't seem worried in part because junior shortstop Kira Brown and senior catcher Paige Hurst return.
“(Brown's) been my shortstop since she was a freshman,” Ryver said. “(Hurst's) hitting a lot of line drives. Both her and Kira are good base runners.”
Ryver said junior Rachel Boyd will pitch most of the time, and he added that she's improved her drop ball. There's a mix of youth and experience elsewhere: eighth-grader Tori Ishmael and senior Celena Wagner take care of two outfield spots.
Rowan County's 24-16 record was the 61st's best, but the Lady Vikings fell to Fleming County three times last year, including the district final.
“We expect to win the district,” said Rowan County coach Larry Slone. “That's our expectation … Overall, I think we'll be as good as last year.”
The Lady Vikings lost four starters — two infielders graduated, another outfielder decided not to play, and an outfielder transferred. Slone said the core group — pitcher Morgan Mitchell, catcher Lindsey Wilson, left fielder Becca Duff and senior center fielder McKenzie Summers — return.
“(Duff) is our No. 3 hitter, a solid hitter, hits with power,” Slone said. “(Summers) puts the bat on the ball, hits over .300.”
Junior Allie Banks is the starting shortstop, and Lewis County transfer Courtnae Bolander should start at first base and pitch.
Bath County slogged to an 8-23 record a year ago. This year's Lady Cats are young — of the 21 girls listed on the roster, there are eight freshmen, 10 sophomores, one junior and two seniors — but coach Kenny Williams said many of the younger players enter their second or third year in the system.
Pitcher/outfielder Amber Martin (who missed the season-opening doubleheader sweep March 16 over Sheldon Clark with a sore back left over from basketball season) and shortstop Megan Penick (a near-.400 hitter last season) are the seniors. Among the younger players, sophomore pitcher/utility player Morgan Howard is in her third year in the program.
“We're still looking for a 20-win season,” Williams said.