Could Wheat Ridge softball's offense be even more potent this season? If so, beware to the rest of the Class 4A squads.
The Farmers captured their fourth 4A championship trophy over six seasons in 2013 thanks to veteran pitcher Jessica Salbato and punching offensive line-up.
"Last year's state championship meant a lot," Wheat Ridge coach Marty Stricklett said. "It was a hard-fought battle last year. We had to really earn last year's state title. Day-in and day-out they had to leave it all out on the field."
While Stricklett loses Salbato to graduation, he returns six returning starters. It's the most returning starters since Stricklett took over the reigns of the Farmers' program in 2008.
The Farmers line-up should look fairly similar to last year's team that racked up a 24-1 record on the way to Wheat Ridge's sixth state softball title since 2002. Senior Analece Apodaca, along with juniors Christina Nelson and Ann Marie Torres headline the Farmers' offensive attack.
"I definitely think this team has a lot of potential," said Nelson, one of five returners who batted above .400 last season. "We just have to work and go one day at a time. We are going to be good, but there still is a lot of good competition out there."
The three returning all-state selections (Apodaca, Nelson and Torres) combined for 140 hits, 93 RBIs and 40 doubles in 2013. Torres belted a remarkable 13 home runs.
"She (Torres) is a great hitter, but we have a couple of other on the team that are right with her," Stricklett said. "My top three batters in my opinion are three of the top hitters in the state. Those top three hitters we put out there put pressure on every team and every team in the state knows it."
Torres doesn't know if she will be able to surpass her offensive numbers from 2013, but the Division I prospect is clearly zeroed in on getting Wheat Ridge in the position to repeat as state champions.
"I'm focused on high school right now," said Torres about going into the college recruiting process.
Wheat Ridge's biggest question coming into the season is who will take over the pitching duties. Stricklett said there are a handful of potential options. Senior Erin Dalton went 3-0 in on the hill last season. Torres and Nelson could move from their infield positions to the mound. There are also three sophomores who could see some time at pitcher.
"We'll have pitching tryouts and we'll be going through pitchers for who knows how long," Stricklett said. "It's going to be a process, but we'll figure it out."
The Farmers start the season playing four 5A squads. Wheat Ridge will have a marquee match-up against defending 5A state champion Legacy on the Lightning's home field at 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 26.
Wheat Ridge's lone loss last season came against Standley Lake. Stricklett said the defeat "humbled" his squad at the right time, but he also admitted it's hard to look at the Farmers' state championship shirts and see that one loss.
Standley Lake moved down to 4A Jeffco this season. The Farmers will host the Gators in the middle of their conference schedule.
"It's always going to eat at us, but it just pushes us to work harder," Torres said of the lone blemish last season.
Class 4A softball
Defending champion: Wheat Ridge
Returning All-State players: Analece Apodaca, Sr., UT, Wheat Ridge (1st); Alex Dufour, Sr., SS, Frederick (1st); Gabriela Garcia, Sr., C, Mullen (1st); Alexandra Jaros, Sr., CF, Holy Family (1st, 3A); Tiffany Maul, Sr., C, Erie (1st); Ally Power, Sr., P, Ponderosa (1st); Rio Sanchez, Soph., P/3B, Erie (1st); McKenzie Surface, Sr., P/1B, Discovery Canyon (1st); Ann Marie Torres, Jr., SS, Wheat Ridge (1st); Kendall Baker, Sr., IF, Berthoud (2nd); Sissy Hall, Sr., CF, Pueblo South (2nd); Christina Nelson, Sr., 2B, Wheat Ridge (2nd); Cheyenne Talmadge, Sr., 2B, Pueblo East (2nd)
Regular season begins: August 15
Playoffs begin: October 11
Championship: October 17-18, at Aurora Sports Park