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4A SIC softball preview: Upstart picked to knock off the three-time defending state champ

Rocky Mountain softball walks off with first district title in program history

The Rocky Mountain High softball team won their first district title when Baylie Murray triggered the mercy rule in a 16-6, six-inning win over Boise in the 5A SIC championship game.
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The Rocky Mountain High softball team won their first district title when Baylie Murray triggered the mercy rule in a 16-6, six-inning win over Boise in the 5A SIC championship game.

Middleton has ruled Idaho’s 4A softball classification the past three years, winning three straight state titles. But the Southern Idaho Conference’s coaches predict a changing of the guard this year.

Ridgevue, which has fallen to Middleton in the past two state championship games, came out on top of the preseason SIC coaches’ poll. And Bishop Kelly finished tied for second with the Vikings, who have started as the preseason favorite each of the past three years.

Will that prediction hold up, or will Middleton become the first Idaho softball team in any classification to win four straight state championships? Only time will tell. But for now, here are the top players and teams to watch in the 4A SIC this spring.

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Ridgevue junior pitcher Gracie Walters earned first-team all-conference honors last season and is a major reason the Warhawks were picked as the 4A SIC preseason favorite. Michael Lycklama mlycklama@idahostatesman.com

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Lainey Lyle, P, Middleton

Idaho’s reigning all-class player of the year and the 4A SIC’s three-time player of the year, Lyle enters her senior season already signed with Division I North Dakota State.

She’s a force both at the plate and inside the pitcher’s circle. She owns a career record of 89-9 with a 0.82 ERA and 559 strikeouts, and she hit .463 with five home runs and 36 RBIs last year.

She always steps up on the largest stage. In last year’s state tournament, she didn’t allow an earned run in 24 innings while allowing eight hits and striking out 28.

Gracie Walters, P/OF, Ridgevue

Walters mowed through the 4A SIC last season, posting a 0.68 ERA with 322 strikeouts and just 19 walks. Hitters struggled to find solid contact against her rise ball and other offspeed pitches when she was a sophomore. It won’t get any easier as she enters her junior campaign.

Laura Lockard, SS, Bishop Kelly

The senior shortstop has made the all-conference first team each of the past two years. But the Dixie State signee also earned respect on the national level, earning a spot on the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-West region second team.

The only other Idaho players to make the team were Eagle’s Gabi Peters (first team) and Siera Horton (second team).

Annie Davidson, C, Bishop Kelly

Baserunners long ago learned not to test the senior catcher’s arm. A two-time first-team all-conference selection, her strong arm and aggressive backpicks have earned her a spot on Carroll College’s roster next season.

“She’s the best catcher I have seen in a very long time,” Ridgevue coach Dave Kemper said.

Can’t see the above preseason coaches’ poll on your phone? Click here for the full 4A SIC poll.

THE FAVORITE

RIDGEVUE WARHAWKS

Last season: 26-6, 11-3 4A SIC

Coach: Dave Kemper, third season

Key players: Gracie Walters, jr.; Reiss McIntyre, so.; Katie Ramirez, fr.; Carly Pena, jr.

The Warhawks have quickly established themselves as a softball power, reaching the state championship game and finishing second each of the school’s first two seasons. And with nine returning starters, they have their eyes set on a first state championship.

The reigning district champ can always rely on Walters to keep it in games inside the pitcher’s circle. She’ll have help this season in McIntyre, who can take the innings load off her arm. Add in a powerful freshman first baseman in Pena and Ridgevue has all the pieces to finally get over the hump.

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Bishop Kelly junior Riley Jones has verbally committed to a Division I scholarship from Farleigh Dickinson in New Jersey and remains a threat for the Knights both on the mound and at the plate. Michael Lycklama mlycklama@idahostatesman.com

THE CONTENDERS

BISHOP KELLY KNIGHTS

Last season: 18-8, 10-4 4A SIC

Coach: Missy Nichols, third season

Key players: Laura Lockard, sr.; Annie Davidson, sr.; Riley Jones, jr.; Jaylynn Stinson, sr.

The Knights missed the state tournament last year but return loaded with nine returning starters set to make noise. With four college commits or signees, Bishop Kelly has the top-level talent to hang with anyone. And its deep lineup won’t give opposing pitchers any breaks.

Bishop Kelly has already proved itself against some of the west’s top competition, going 3-2 at a tournament in St. George, Utah, and upsetting 5A powerhouse Eagle.

MIDDLETON VIKINGS

Last season: 30-3, 14-0 4A SIC

Coach: Rob Kiser, seventh season

Key players: Lainey Lyle, sr.; Hannah Mikel, jr.

The three-time defending state champs found themselves looking up in the preseason coaches’ poll as graduation robbed the Vikings of five first- or second-team all-conference players. Lyle and a strong defense will make Middleton a threat day in and day out. But Kiser said the Vikings remain young in key positions all over the diamond.

THE DARK HORSES

VALLIVUE FALCONS

Last season: 18-14, 8-6 4A SIC

Coach: Kevin Schimmelpfennig, seventh season

Key players: Chelsie Engle, jr.; Hattie Hruza, sr.; Lauren Garman, sr.

After leading the 4A SIC with 9.7 runs per game last year, the Falcons return six starters and a lineup capable of hanging crooked numbers on the scoreboard at a moment’s notice. Engle (.471 batting average, 49 RBIs), Hruza (five home runs) and Garman (.468) headline a group of heavy hitters. But Vallivue must break in new two new pitchers with little varsity experience in Hailey Sneddon and Britney Henderson.

KUNA KAVEMEN

Last season: 15-11, 8-8 5A SIC

Coach: Joe Kleffner, 20th season

Key players: Taryn Vanderwiel, jr.; Lindsey Jones, sr.; Graci Bender, sr.

The Kavemen started a youth movement last season, and with seven starters back, it will start reaping the benefits. Kleffner said Kuna started the year miles ahead of where it was last year, progress he hopes will shore up a shaky defense.

THE UNDERDOGS

CALDWELL COUGARS

Last season: 8-15-1, 5-9 4A SIC

Coach: Molly Mamer, third season

Key players: Melicah Anderson, jr.; Courtney Williams, so.; Stephanie Bryson, fr.

After years of bringing up the bottom of the conference, Caldwell has started to turn the corner, and several coaches named them a team to watch. The Cougars remain young but bring back eight starters, experience that should pay off as they take on the conference’s blue bloods. Mamer said she has the most versatile group in her time at Caldwell.

NAMPA BULLDOGS

Last season: 11-12-1, 5-11 5A SIC

Coach: James Beebe, ninth season

Key players: Camille Snead, sr.; Kylee Morgan, so.; Alondra Pena, so.; Alexis Tovar, so.

Nampa threw four freshmen into the lineup at the 5A level and all more than held their own. The Bulldogs will rely on their continued progress and big bats as they drop down to the 4A level. The sophomores make up the bulk of Nampa’s seven returning starters. But Snead, a senior signed with Blue Mountain Community College, will continue to lead at the plate and in the pitcher’s circle.

EMMETT HUSKIES

Last season: 4-21, 2-12 4A SIC

Coach: Shawn Marquez, seventh season

Key players: Kylie Yanzuk, fr.

The Huskies started the season in a hole, with only four returning starters, and junior pitcher Holly Goslin and sophomore center fielder Camille Bailey out with injuries. But freshman Kylie Yanzuk ought to provide a spark at the plate and inside the pitcher’s circle.

COLUMBIA WILDCATS

Last season: 1-22, 1-15 5A SIC

Coach: Mike Chavez, second season (ninth overall)

Key players: Maddie Anderson, jr.; Claire Campbell, jr.

The Wildcats took their lumps during four years at the 5A level, going 3-61 in league play and 6-87 overall. But Columbia looks to turn the corner at the 4A level with five three-year starters, including Anderson, a shortstop, and Campbell, a catcher. Chavez said the experience should help his pitching staff find more consistency.

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