The Sydney show

She stands a smidge under 6-foot-1, but Maple Grove pitcher Sydney Smith cast a tall shadow over the prep softball world last spring for far more impressive reasons. Smith, now a senior, begins her fourth year as the Crimson’s ace, a fireballing righthander who commands the rubber with an array of pinpoint pitches and an equally intimidating presence. The 2014 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year was 22-2 with a 0.52 ERA and 256 strikeouts in 2014, guiding Maple Grove to a runner-up finish in the Class 3A state tournament. With Maple Grove returning eight starters, Smith has the right cast around her to lead the Crimson to a state title before she heads to LSU.

 

South Suburban free-for-all

Nothing prepares a team for the postseason like a rigorous regular season schedule. And no conference is as stacked, top to bottom, as the South Suburban. As many as six teams — Rosemount, Prior Lake, Shakopee, Eastview, Lakeville North and Lakeville South — can lay a legitimate claim to having league championship hopes. Rosemount, with sophomore lefthander and University of Tennessee recruit Gabby Sprang, should be considered the favorite. But as Shakopee coach Neil Johnson said, “everyone can be anyone in this conference.”

 

Old hat for New Life

With nine consecutive Class 1A state tournament appearances, New Life Academy has established itself as the preeminent small-school softball program in the metro and arguably the state. The Eagles won four titles from 2008-2011 and was runner-up in each of the past two seasons. With a senior battery of pitcher Valerie Hohol and catcher Malorie Giere that would be enviable in any class, the 1A title will once again run through New Life Academy.

 

The Great Unknown

In 2014, Lakeville South rode the arm of senior pitcher Kylie Stober to an unexpected Class 3A state championship. Without a repeat champion in Minnesota’s largest class since Burnsville in 2004 and 2005, it’s about getting hot at the right time and having the right pitcher. That makes Spring Lake Park and Becker intriguing teams this season. Panthers sophomore pitcher Halley Jones was 22-4 with a 1.14 ERA in 2014 and should only get better, but they play in Section 5 with Maple Grove. Becker, a 2014 state tournament entrant, has two strong pitchers in senior Haley Harmon and sophomore Brianna Corey.

 

Three darkhorses

Irondale, with senior sinkerballer Maggie Schley, leads a mostly veteran group that hopes to improve on 2014’s 16-5 record. Rogers pitcher Katelyn Kemmetmueller is already a two-time Mississippi 8 Conference pitcher of the year and she’s still just a junior. Look for big things from Benilde-St. Margaret’s, with one of the metro’s top hitters in Gophers recruit Maddie Houlihan and an improving pitcher in junior Lilly Johnson.

Jim Paulsen