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Billings Senior

Coach: Dave Draeger, 9th season (129-83)

Last year: 17-11, 4th Eastern AA

At state: 4th place

Returning starters: Cassidy Butler, Sr., IF/P; Kirstie Thomas, Sr., P/IF; Jessie Harmon, Sr., OF; Taylor Kufeld, Sr., IF; Shae Hoskins, Jr., P/OF; Jacey Habets, Jr., C/IF, Jackie Thomas, So., P/IF, Jenna Kaiser, Jr., C/P/IF; Alex Bolin, Jr., OF.

Others to watch: Danielle McCarthy, Sr., OF; Kim Bray, So., IF; Mariah Pantoja, Sr., C/IF; Megan Olness, Fr., P/IF

Noteworthy: The Broncs defeated Skyview in an Eastern AA playoff last season to qualify for state. ... Kirstie Thomas leads returners with 18 RBIs last season. She was also 4-3 with a 3.15 ERA in the circle and batted .342. ... Hoskins batted .411 with 17 RBIs. She led the Broncs in the circle with a 7-2 mark and a 2.22 ERA. ... Butler was 3-3 with a 3.53 in the circle and batted .292. ... Habets had a .438 average and 13 RBIs. Kirstie Thomas, Hoskins and Butler all logged more than 35 innings, so the pitching experience should be an advantage for the Broncs. ... Kaiser had eight RBIs in just 34 at-bats last season. ... The Broncs specialized in small-ball last year, scoring 158 runs on just four homers.

Coach Draeger says: "I was happy with the way we ended our playoff run (last year), but the bottom line is our kids and myself, at the end, we both still expected more. And we still want more from this season. The Eastern AA will be a matter of who can rise up and challenge a West High or a CMR along the way. I think our kids feel like they can and they should feel like they can, because I know they can. It's just a matter of belief and going to work every day and trying to get it done."

Billings Skyview

Coach: Mike Falcon, 3rd season (33-19)

Last year: 14-9, 5th Eastern AA

At state: DNQ

Returning starters: Amber Meyers, Sr., OF; Katie Kent, Sr.; 3B; Julia Gutierrez, Sr. OF; Courtney LaRoque, Sr., C/1B; Meggie Reitz, Jr., P/1B.

Others to watch: Kaitlyn Frenk, Jr., 2B/3B; Whitney Harris, Sr., OF; Heidi Riley, Jr., SS; Caitlyn Schanz, Soph., 1B/P; Kris Rickhoff, Fr., P; Darby Marney, Soph., C; Katy Webber, Soph., OF; Chaundra Monical, Jr., OF.

Noteworthy: Riley transferred from Shepherd and Schanz is a transfer from Huntley Project. Schanz will miss the first seven games of the season. ... Meyers led the team with a .355 average and was named second-team all-state. She also hit two home runs and drove in 16. ... Gutierrez had no varsity experience before last season began and wound up hitting .310 with 15 RBIs. ... Kent, who played in five games in 2009 but had no official at-bats, worked her way into the Falcons' clean-up spot last year and hit .314 with 11 RBIs. ... Frenk hit .320 in 25 at-bats. ... LaRoque threw out six of the eight base runners who tried to steal off her. ... Reitz (6-1, 4.77 ERA) showed solid development in the circle and will assume the No. 1 pitching spot this season. She was the team leader in victories.

Coach Falcon says: "We're kind of a younger team than we've had in the other years, but talent-wise I think we're right there. We're going to be younger in the circle with a junior, a sophomore and a freshman pitcher, but defensively I really like our athleticism that we have this year. There's no reason why we should not be in the mix to be one of the top teams in the conference. There's no reason why talent-wise, and going position-by-position, that we can't compete with everyone else in the conference."

Billings West

Coach: Ed Kriskovich, 26th season (389-238)

Last year: 22-5, 2nd Eastern AA

At state: 1st place

Returning starters: Devan Dennehy, Sr., OF; Jessyka MacDonald, Sr., P/SS; Taylor Huebner, Jr., SS/1B; Keela Needens, Sr., 1B; Kim Adelblue, Jr., C/1B; Caryn Perrigo, Sr., 3B; Kassidy Rauch, Sr., OF.

Others to watch: Mariah Garza, Jr., OF; Molly Porter, Jr., OF; Becca DeMeyer, So., IF/OF; Katie Zink, So., P/IF; Amanda Dunlap, Sr., IF; Miranda Ratcliff, Fr., C/3B; Catherine Lawler, Sr., 1B; Jalen Creech, Fr., P/3B; Haley Swan, Soph., 3B/C.

Noteworthy: Last year's state title was the second in school history. ... MacDonald three threw no-hitters last season while compiling an 18-2 record and a 1.23 ERA. She also batted .430 with four home runs and 14 RBIs and was named the Gatorade Player of the Year. ... Perrigo hit .382 and drove in 10 runs. ... Adelblue led the team with 28 RBIs and hit .357. ... Needens showed steady improvement at the plate last season and wound up batting .298. ... Huebner batted a productive .268. She drove in 20 runs with the help of five home runs. ... Dennehy hit .273.

Coach Kriskovich says: "Pitching is going to be a strength with Jessyka on the mound. But we're still going to play them one game at a time. Once we get going, we'll be fairly solid defensively and I know we can hit the ball. The key for them is to realize the state tournament is over, it's a new year. We have to realize that this is a whole new ball game. We're 0-0 this year, we don't have the state championship. That was last year."

Billings Central

Coach: Coleman Rockwell, 3rd season (37-9)

Last year: 21-3, 1st Eastern A

At state: 2-2

Returning starters: Chere Anderson, Sr., CF; Amanda Tryan, Jr., C/OF; Michaela Jacobson, Jr., 3B; Alexa Rockwell, Soph., P/IF; Ashley MacDonald, Soph., IF.

Others to watch: Guinevere Ayers, Sr., IF; Mary Pankratz, Sr., OF; Sarah Shaw, Soph., IF; Sarah Stringari, Soph., P; Kehley Grosulak, Soph., IF; Megan Martin, Jr., OF; Jacey Menter, Jr., OF; Jessie Moorhouse, Jr., P.

Noteworthy: The Rams are seeking their 14th consecutive trip to the State A tournament. The team lost to eventual champion Polson in the quarterfinal round last season. ... Anderson, Tryan, Jacobson and Rockwell all hit better than .300 last season. Rockwell led the group with a .382 average. ... Central looks to replace the production of four departed seniors, including pitcher Ashley Corcoran and catcher Brynn Burke. ... Rockwell and Stringari will serve as the Rams' top two pitchers. Rockwell won four games in the circle last season. ... Central will play only four games on its home field at Stewart Park this season, and won't play an official home game after April 26.

Coach Rockwell says: "We have a good core, but we also have a lot of girls that have played in the past who we hope will step up. We haven't had a lot of live hitting to this point, so our hitting might start off a little slow. Last year I thought we found ways to win games in key spots. The Eastern A is pretty wide-open, so pitching is the key."

Laurel

Coach: Greg Branstetter, 13th season (202-88)

Last year: 15-8, 2nd Eastern A

At state: 2-2

Returning starters: Keilah Ahman, Sr., SS; Haylee Gallegos, Jr., 3B; Tara Russell, Jr., P/Flex; Kelcie Wood, Jr., 2B.

Others to watch: Katelyn Pastian, Sr., LF; Brittany Goodson, Jr., CF; Amanda Taylor, Soph., 1B; Kailey Grover, Soph., RF; Kayla Hallock, Soph., C; Whitney Hodges, Jr., P.

Noteworthy: Laurel graduated seven seniors from last year's team, including leadoff hitter Olivia Heidinger and power hitter Sarah Parks. ... The Locomotives have only two seniors this season. ... Russell is the team's top returning hitter after batting .422 last season. Russell also went 7-1 in the circle. Wood, meanwhile, hit .374 last season while Gallegos batted .346. ... Branstetter, who eclipsed the 200-win plateau at the end of last season, thinks speed is one of his team's greatest assets in 2011. ... The Locomotives beat Lewistown and Whitefish but lost to eventual champion Polson and Havre at last year's State A tournament.

Coach Branstetter says: "I'm pretty pleased with what I've see from our young players. I think our pitching is pretty good, and our speed. We're way faster this year than we have been in previous years. The players put a lot of time in this winter working to get where they're at. It's a good bunch to work with. It's going to be a fun year."

Hardin

Coach: Chris Reed

Returning starters: Jessica Campbell, Sr., P; Alice Ann Sloan, Sr., C; Kaley Krebs, Sr., 1B; Ashley Watson, Sr., OF; Autumn Blakely, Jr., SS; Mallory Edgar, Jr., CF; Tori Snyder, Jr., 2B; Jestin Murphy, Jr., OF; Abbey Wacker, Jr., 3B.

Others to watch: Elizabeth Other Medicine, Sr., OF; Ashley Bush, Sr., 1B; Taylor Torske, Soph., OF; Jordan Edwards, Soph., UT

Noteworthy: Campbell was all-state last season. She hit over .400 and led the team in doubles, RBIs and total bases as the lead-off hitter. ... Sloan hit better than .400 and was second team all-conference. ... Krebs hit .340, and Blakely batted .310 and led the team in stolen bases.

Miles City

Coach: Dan Ries (3rd season)

Last year: 6-12

Returning starters: Jena Stratton, Sr., 3B; Kandace Kiosse, Sr., 2B; Shelby Ries, Soph., P/C; Taylor Jones, Jr., P/OF; Caitlin Shipp, Jr., OF.

Others to watch: Bailey Hrubes, Fr., SS

Noteworthy: Ries was an all-conference honorable mention selection as a utility player. ... The Cowgirls improved by six wins last season from a winless season the year before. ... Coach Ries said the Cowgirls are looking for a stronger offense this year.

Sidney

Coach: Terry Roth (2nd season)

Returning starters: Kayla Lake, IF/OF; Janae Moore, 3B/C; Brooke Schmitt, SS; Brittany Johnson, P/IF/OF; Lyndsay Nesper, OF/3B; Amy Rassier, OF

Others to watch: Nichole Peters, 1B; Abby Haraldson, P; Morgan Thiel; Jaycee Searer; Abby Balcer; Rihanna Davidson.

Noteworthy: Sidney qualifed for state last season but was beaten out by Havre. ... One of the team's highlights from last year was rallying from an 8-1 deficit to Miles City for a 12-11 win. ... Lake, Moore and Johnson were named all-conference last season.

Coach Roth says: "The entire conference will be tough again this year, especially Laurel and Billings Central. We will need to play very well this year to qualify for state again. (Last year) was a fun year and we showed great improvement as the season went on."

Lewistown

Coach: Mike Mangold

Last year: 11-13

At state: 2-2 at the State A tournament

Key returners: Abby Gordon, Sr., P; Kirsten Miller, Sr., C; Allie Adams, Jr., 1B/P; Amanda Stenseth, Jr., SS; Nadja Robertson, So., OF; Lissa Quinlan, Jr., OF; Alyssa Yaeger, So.; Mary Birdwell, So.; Ella Goodwyn, Sr.

Noteworthy: Lewistown qualified for state in its first year as a varsity program. ... The Eagles qualified for state by beating Havre in 10 innings in the final conference game of the season. ... Gordan (3.36 ERA in 121 innings), Miller (.301 avg., 8 RBI), Adams (.443 avg., 13 RBI, 3.39 ERA), Stenseth (.405 avg., 15 RBI, 14 R) and Robertson (.311 avg., 14 R, 14 SB) were all named all-conference last season. ... Quinlan had nine outfield assists. ... Goodwyn returns after missing last season due to an ACL injury. She was second in team batting average the year before in Lewistown's junior varsity season.

Coach Mangold says: "The most exciting thing to see is the aggressiveness that carries over from year to year. Each year there are more girls ‘getting dirty,' throwing and hitting harder, running with a purpose, and simply put, farther ahead in all fundamentals of the game. Undoubtedly, the state tournament is one of our goals. It will be a huge challenge in itself as three of the final six teams at state were from our conference. Belgrade is a preseason favorite to make a run for a state title, Butte Central didn't lose anyone to graduation, and Havre was also one of the top six teams at state along with us."

-- Compiled by Mike Scherting and Greg Rachac

Of The Gazette Staff

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