Is Chanhassen even better than last year?

The Storm won the first championship in program history when it took the Class 4A title last spring. After losing only two players from that team, there’s an enviable senior core in catcher Jessica Bren, second baseman Kali O’Keefe, shortstop/pitcher MaryBeth Olson and pitcher Taylor Manno. Toss in outfielder Alex Velazquez, a University of Minnesota recruit who sat out last year after transferring from Aurora, Colo., and it’s pretty clear Chanhassen is loaded.

Will Gabby Sprang spring forward this season?

Rosemount senior pitcher Gabby Sprang has been lauded as the next great softball pitcher to bloom in Minnesota since she committed to Tennessee as a freshman. The 6-foot lefthander has a laser for a fastball and a drop ball that drops jaws. She has yet to put together the type of dominant high school season we’ve seen from former Star Tribune metro players of the year Sydney Smith of Maple Grove and Kaitlyn Kemmet mueller of Rogers. Will this be the year Sprang rules from the rubber?

South metro superiority

Make no mistake, the metro is flush with good softball teams. But the concentration of top teams is greatest in the south metro. Sections 2 and 3 in Class 4A alone have as many as eight teams with serious state tournament dreams: Bloomington Jefferson, Chanhassen, Eagan, Eastview, Eden Prairie, Park of Cottage Grove, Prior Lake and Rosemount. And that doesn’t account for teams in smaller classes with high expectations, among them New Prague and Waconia (3A), Visitation (2A), and New Life Academy and Southwest Christian (1A).

On the way up

For some reason, Buffalo seems to get overlooked when talking about state tournament favorites, but the Bison’s run to a Class 4A runner-up finish last year was no fluke. Junior pitcher Morgan DeMarais has emerged and third baseman Emily Hansen is a future Gopher. ... New Prague (Class 3A) has a legit star in the making in sophomore pitcher Mia Kraimer. She pitched a no-hitter for her club team in the World Fastpitch Championships in July.

Rule changes

Two permanent and one experimental rule change will be noticeable this season. Following the precedent set in other sports, the Minnesota State High School League approved the seeding of teams in all four classes of state tournament play. Tournament coaches will conduct a seeding meeting before the state tournament to determine seeds one through five. The remaining three teams will have their quarterfinals opponent determined through a blind draw. There will also be a mercy rule enacted when a team trails by 15 or more runs after 3½ innings and has completed its last at-bat. This is in addition to the 10-run mercy rule after 4½ innings. Finally, teams across the country are experimenting with an on-deck circle rule in an effort to reduce foul-ball injuries. Batters must use the on-deck circle directly behind the batter, regardless of which side of the field it is on.

Jim Paulsen