The Southwestern 4A softball championship will be a tightly contested race, with as many as four teams having a legitimate shot at winning the regular-season and conference titles.
The top teams are all talented but also young. Ardrey Kell, Butler, Independence and Myers Park will need upperclassmen to show the younger players how to win.
Great leadership is why Ardrey Kell is the preseason favorite this year despite starting four freshmen. Led by senior first-baseman Stephanie Wood and junior catcher Jordan Hostetler, the Knights have leaders in place to challenge for a state title.
"Leadership is so important, especially with such a young team, and they have really stepped up. They complement each other so well," said head coach Robert Bove. "Stephanie and Jordan were leaders last year as well, but this year they came to the workouts early, worked hard and showed the younger players the way to be the best they can be."
The two have different styles but have the experience and respect teammates rely on. They have been key contributors as the Knights have won the last two conference tournament championships.
"I think we complement each other well," said Hostetler. "We are both really good leaders in our own way, and the team seems to follow what we do and say."
"I am more vocal, but we can both be vocal when we need to be. Stephanie is a little quieter, but we let our teammates know when they aren't doing something right and they respond."
Hostetler handles the pitching staff and is a fiery, outspoken leader; Wood is more reserved - until she steps on the field.
Last year, Wood committed only two errors at first base after spending her freshman and sophomore years in the outfield. She also led the Knights in almost every offensive category, including home runs, slugging percentage, doubles and triples, all while hitting third in the order.
"Stephanie is definitely our best offensive player and has been since I have been here," Hostetler said. "She does a lot to help us win."
Both Wood, who carries a 4.3 GPA, and Hostetler, with a 3.9 GPA, are leaders on and off the field. Neither plans to play softball in college and both have decided to no longer play year round with traveling teams, as they once did.
Wood said she has found more time to hang out with friends and join school clubs. Hostetler, who broke her hand after her freshman year and stopped playing with traveling teams after that, focuses on her schoolwork and having time for friends and family.
"Academics are really important to me," Wood said. "I have known for a while that I wanted to go to the University of Georgia and academics was going to get me there. My dad went to Georgia and my brother Alex is a sophomore on the baseball team. I grew up watching their football games and have focused on going there."
On the field, Wood is relishing her senior season and leadership role. The Knights already have played some of the better teams in the state and have fared well, with wins against Marvin Ridge, Porter Ridge, Independence and South Meck.
"Our early-season schedule has been pretty tough so far," said Wood. "We have a good record right now and have played some really good competition, so that will only help us as we start to get into conference play."
Bove said he usually tries to schedule tough games early in the season to see what talent he has, and that it is especially important for this year's team.
"We try to play good competition each year and think that is how we think we can get better, especially as young as we are," Bove said.
"I think we are in a great position to win the conference outright this year. There are a lot of really good teams and everyone needs a little luck, but we have as good of a shot as anyone."
With the leaders they have in place and their young talent, the Knights have a chance to make a deep playoff run.
"Stephanie and Jordan set the tone for what's expected of everyone, and it sometimes means more to the girls on the team when they tell them something than when I do," Bove said. "It is great to have leadership like that."