For years, it has been easy to find the state title contenders among all the Bi-City baseball teams.
Last year, Russell County was a shoo in to make a deep playoff run with a talented senior-laden roster. Smiths Station was in the same boat. Columbus, while it wasnt as deep as in past years, was considered a contender, as well. Thats what happens when a team is coming off three straight state titles.
This year is a little more interesting.
Coach Tony Rasmus left Russell County, and the program was left in disarray. Smiths Station, still a fantastic program, nonetheless lost the majority of its production from last season. It will be in the playoffs, but will face an uphill climb to contend for the big prize.
Columbus, as always, has been successful, but it has done so without the same swagger that came with being champion. Last year, it faced a second-round exit in the playoffs and is, understandably, trying to prove that was an aberration.
Yes, locating the championship caliber teams among this group is a little more challenging.
But that doesnt mean the talent isnt there.
Take Hardaway for example.
Heres a team that is two years removed from a 9-16 record. Last year, though, the Hawks won the Region 1-AAAAA championship and advanced to the second round before a heartbreaking 7-6 Game 3 loss bounced them from the tournament.
All theyve done this year is bounce back for a 16-4 record, 10-2 in the region to put themselves two wins from consecutive region titles.
Hardaways offense was explosive early in the season, breaking 10 runs in five consecutive games before cooling off during a 1-3 stretch. Since then, it has regained its footing and appears to be in good position late in the season.
Are the Hawks state championship contenders?
It remains to be seen. Its difficult to put that label on a team that hasnt been there late in the playoffs in so many years.
That said, they can win games in so many ways, its hard to imagine them not being on the shortlist.
One team that can make their path harder is Harris County, which also has only four losses this season. The Tigers, too, can clinch a region title with a sweep of Hardaway in their doubleheader Friday.
Harris County has already beaten Hardaway once this year, 4-3 at home, but has shown vulnerabilities in a loss to Shaw and two losses to Lee County in a doubleheader.
The offense hasnt been as dominant as Hardaways, but the pitching and defense have been impressive. It shut out Central and Starrs Mill in back-to-back games early in the season, the latter of which is contending for the Region 4-AAAAA crown.
Can Harris County make a deep playoff run?
Pitching is arguably the most important piece to successful playoff teams, so you cant count the Tigers out.
Which team wins Region 1-AAAAA will likely go a long way in deciding which of the two can make a push.
Though the hill is steep, I wouldnt count out Smiths Station from making some early noise in the playoffs. The pitching was very impressive in wins over Central to clinch a postseason berth last week, not to mention it was a trial by fire in win-or-go-home games.
Those players, most of whom are starting on varsity for the first time, learned quickly what playoff baseball is all about.
And, of course, Columbus is still in the mix. Last seasons early exit notwithstanding, the Blue Devils are still one of the premier programs in the state in any classification. The names may not be as recognizable, but no team will want to face them come May.
David Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ledgerenquirersports.