East Hamilton (26-14): The third-year varsity program is making its first state-tournament appearance and could have momentum from having won eight consecutive games and 14 of its last 17. "We're still making mistakes, but not as many," coach Cara Stiles said. "And even when we do make errors, we've been answering with hits." Junior speedster Shaliyah Geathers and sophomore slugger Kelsey Payne are the offensive leaders, and junior left-hander Maria Walshe shoulders the pitching load.
GPS (23-11): The Bruisers have not only become a fixture at the Division II-AA state tournament in recent years, they've played in the last seven finals and won four. Senior Madison Boyd has their best combination of power and speed, and junior spray-hitter Katy Richardson is a tough out. Junior Corey Swafford and sophomore Madi Stanley handle the pitching duties.
Grace Academy (27-7): The Lady Golden Eagles graduated pitching ace Lacye Walker off last year's team, which played in the school's second consecutive Class A state final. But a fierce lineup that begins with seniors Lexie Dean, Reagan Schrader, Bethany Cowart and Kaitlyn Eldridge remains. Junior transfer Tory Helton has filled in prominently as the main pitcher.
Silverdale Baptist (19-14): Senior Katie Henderson is an offensive leader for the Class A Lady Seahawks, who earned their first state-tournament berth in their seven-year history, but her greatest value has been in the pitching circle. "She has been a warrior," coach Tim Couch said. Underclassmen Allison Meadows, Loren Hilton and Sloane Woodard, a sophomore who hasn't played softball the last two years, are the team's other .400-plus hitters.
Soddy-Daisy (42-4): Kelsey Nunley is the Lady Trojans' lone senior, but having her in the pitching circle makes them plenty formidable. Her ERA is below half a run per game, and she has more than 300 strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks. Juniors Cassidy Hackney and Olivia Williams provide speed at the top of the lineup, and sophomore Haley Reynolds is among those counted on to drive them in.
Many high school softball teams are fortunate if they have enough power hitters to fill the Nos. 3 through 5 spots in the batting order. In Baylor's case, the heart of its order extends through No. 7.
The defending champion Lady Red Raiders have earned their way back to the Division II-AA state tournament. The bad news for upcoming opponents, as many previous ones this season can attest, is that Baylor's offense is more potent than last year's.
Coach Kelli Smith played at Baylor in the early 1990s and said in her prep career she saw four balls land over the fence at the same field where her current team plays.
"Now we may see that in one day," Smith said.
She watched three Friday with Haley Andrus and Kelsie Clark connecting in the first game in the sub-state series against Harpeth Hall and Lauren Lewis clouting one in the second. Those three along with Noelle Winkles and Cassi Pickett help give the Lady Raiders a middle of the lineup that at the TSSAA softball level may be as feared as major league baseball's 1927 New York Yankees.
Andrus, Clark, Lewis, Pickett and Winkles have driven in 207 runs for Baylor, which is 37-5 and has scored at least 10 runs in a game 20 times this season, including its last eight. The five have combined for 32 home runs, 92 extra-base hits and 385 total bases.
"A lot of coaches have come up to us and said our lineup is 'pick your poison,'" Smith said. "Even some opposing pitchers have said to us we have the toughest lineup they've faced, or we'll read quotes in the paper.
"The thing about having this kind of lineup is we don't have one or two that have to come through or carry the burden of having to be the one to come up with the big hit every game."
Lewis, a freshman, leads the power surge with 11 homers and 62 RBIs.
"She destroys the ball," Winkles said.
Lewis was in the lineup last year, but not as high.
"My goal was to hit at least six home runs," she said. "I'm a power hitter and colleges like home runs."
Smith said Lewis has been much more consistent this season.
"In some of our big victories, our big games, she's had the big hits," Smith said. "Last year she had a couple, too, but this year she's definitely been a force we can rely on."
Winkles is a sophomore and a transitional offensive player at the No. 3 spot. In addition to being part of the muscle, her speed extends the top of the order.
"We're still trying to figure out how to use her," Smith said.
Winkles is a former right-handed batter who has developed into far more than just a slap-hitter.
"Now that I'm hitting left-handed, everything just feels like it's come together," she said. "It feels more natural."
Clark bats seventh, but Tusculum College thought enough of her ability to offer her a scholarship, which the senior has accepted. Smith said in some of the other nine seasons she's coached, Clark could've batted as high as fifth.
Andrus has batted in the upper-middle part of the order in previous years, and she could be heating up at the right time, if her 5-for-6 day Friday is any indication. Fellow sophomore Pickett is second to Lewis with seven home runs and her 17 doubles trails only the 18 by team-leader Sarah Moore, a junior who has contributed three home runs from leadoff.
"I quote often to people," Smith said, "I know how unique and special they are."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.