High school softball teams reach the midway point in their regular-season schedules this week, spurring an unpredictable race for conference supremacy over the season's final month.
Several teams in the 5A and 4A Southern Idaho conferences have emerged as favorites to compete for the league crown, but there are plenty of story lines to follow.
"In the eight years that I've coached, this is the tightest I've ever seen the league," said Capital coach Shane Alder, who returns all but one starter from last season, including seven seniors.
Alder's Eagles handed Mountain View a 12-6 loss Tuesday, creating a bottleneck for the top spot in the standings. Capital has won eight consecutive games since a 1-0 loss to Vallivue on March 20.
Ahead of Thursday's games, Capital, Eagle, Mountain View and Vallivue were tied for first with league records of 6-2. Meridian was a game back at 5-3.
In addition to Capital, here is a look at some of the top teams and players to keep an eye on:
EAGLE FACING ADVERSITY
The defending District Three champions, who finished second at state, have played the first 11 games without starting pitcher Bradie Fillmore, and with head coach Doug Corta sidelined while fighting a malignant brain tumor.
Fillmore, a sophomore with a commitment to Cal, was suffering from over-use of her pitching arm after a long stretch of games between last year's high school season and club ball.
She has been starting at shortstop and batting, and just began throwing in the bullpen. She is expected to get back to pitching in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, freshman Autumn Moffat has taken most of the starts for the Mustangs.
As for Corta, he had successful surgery to remove the tumor in March and will begin chemotherapy in the next few weeks. Corta's wife, Jacki, continues to post updates on his progress at CaringBridge.org.
MOUNTAIN VIEW BACK AT FULL STRENGTH
Senior shortstop Taurie Pogue (wrist) and pitcher Courtney Moore (torn labrum) each missed portions of last season with injuries, and the Mavericks failed to qualify for state for the first time since 2009.
Both are back and healthy and among eight seniors who have the Mavericks off to a 10-2 start.
Five of the seniors have signed to play in college: Pogue (Cal), Moore (Texas A&M Commerce), Courtney Chase (Eastern Oregon), Dakoda Lee (Hesston College) and Lizzy Baecht (Southern Oregon).
"Teams in the area do know that we have a lot of talent on our team," Mountain View coach Tim Souza said. "What I relay to the girls is we need to expect everybody's best game regardless."
The Mavericks started the season with a nine-game winning streak, but lost back-to-back games to Meridian and Capital before beating Centennial on Wednesday.
VALLIVUE ENJOYING BREAKOUT SEASON
After several years with an inexperienced lineup, coach Kevin Schimmelpfennig says youth is now turning to experience, and it's paying off on the field.
The Falcons finished third-to-last in the conference last season, but were tied for first in the standings ahead of Thursday's games. Vallivue had won nine straight games before falling 8-5 to Centennial on Tuesday.
Schimmelpfennig started four sophomores last season - all of whom are back - and returns three seniors at key positions: pitcher Ali Longoria, shortstop Leah Weiss and third baseman Brenna Elhart.
"In years past they were unsure of themselves," Schimmelpfennig said. "This year, they have real confidence that they believe they can."
NEW FACES JOIN 5A, 4A COACHING RANKS
Of the 19 teams in the District Three's two largest classifications, six have new coaches.
Suzy Spear assumes head-coaching duties after 15 years as an assistant at Centennial.
Tim Souza takes over at Mountain View. He has previously served as an assistant at both Mountain View and Eagle.
Missy Nichols was promoted from JV coach at Rocky Mountain and also has coached at Eagle.
Erin Lokteff played softball at Mesa State and Southern Nevada and is a math teacher at Caldwell.
Shawn Marquez has been involved with youth club softball in Emmett for the past decade and moved up from an assistant on last year's varsity team to head coach of the Huskies this season.
Jael McCarty played four years at center field for Northwest Nazarene and was promoted from junior varsity coach at Skyview.
4A SIC FILLED WITH CONTENDERS
A team from the 4A SIC has won 12-of-13 state titles since the 4A classification was formed in 2001.
Bishop Kelly owns the most 4A championships with six, while Mountain Home and Emmett each have two and Kuna and Skyview one apiece.
BK won the regular-season, district and state titles last season, but not without a fight.
The Knights finished the 2013 regular season one game ahead of Kuna, Middleton and Skyview, which were locked in a three-way tie for second.
Not much has changed in 2014.
"This league is a little scary, to be honest with you," said Middleton coach Rob Kiser, who graduated two players from last year's team. "There is not a night when you can essentially take it off."
Before Thursday's games, Kuna owned the top spot in the standings at 7-0, and Middleton and Bishop Kelly were tied for second at 5-2. Emmett and Caldwell were 4-3.
"There are five or six teams that could qualify for the state tournament," Kiser said. "I think anybody in our league could beat anybody else in our league on any given night."
Skyview (2-4), which finished third at state last season, has been slowed by a variety of illnesses. First-year coach Jael McCarty said she has had players come down with mono, strep and whooping cough, but the entire team is now healthy and poised to make a run in the second half of their conference schedule.
Only three state playoff spots are available from District Three.
"It's going to be similar to last year," BK coach Tom Antonopolis said. "The league is very, very close."
STATE TOURNAMENTS GET VALLEY VENUES
Since fastpitch was sanctioned by the Idaho High School Activities Association in 1997, the 5A state tournament has never been held in the Treasure Valley.
That changes this season.
The Skyview Softball Complex in Nampa will host the 5A and 4A tournaments May 16-17, while the 3A and 2A schools will play at the West Park Softball Complex in Nampa. The 1A tournament is at Quad Park in Caldwell.
DIVISION I, LOCAL COLLEGE COMMITS
Bradie Fillmore, Eagle (2016), California
Ali Longoria, Vallivue, College of Idaho
Taurie Pogue, Mountain View, California
Angelina Romero, Meridian, College of Idaho
Sierra Stone, Eagle, Cornell
Tess Willis, Middleton, College of Idaho
For a lot if nearly 200 known commitments by Treasure Valley athletes in softball and other sports, visit blogs.idahostatesman.comvarsityextra.
Rachel Roberts: 377-6422,Twitter: @IDS_VarsityX