Softball practice officially began Monday for IHSA schools. Games can start March 16.
The Northwest Herald softball preview will appear online March 18 and in print March 19, with previews on each local team. Until then, here are three storylines to look out for in the 2020 season.
Who's stopping Huntley?
The defending Class 4A state champions are going to miss every one of their seniors – Kendra Mitchell, Sofia Tenuta, Grace Kutz, Taylor Zielinski and Courtney Mills – who were vital to last season's magical run to East Peoria, but it's hard not to like the Red Raiders again as a state title contender.
Back for Huntley is arguably the state's top pitcher in Briana Bower. All the Mississippi State-bound Bower did last spring as a sophomore was go 27-5 with a 1.12 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 353 strikeouts in 212 1/3 innings.
In 46 postseason innings, Bower recorded a 0.91 ERA with 75 strikeouts and four walks. She went all eight innings in a 1-0 win over St. Charles East in the state championship game.
What will Bower do for an encore?
The loss of five seniors shouldn't be understated, but Huntley still will field one of the area's most talented lineups. Butler commit Teagan O'Rilley set a team record with 15 home runs last season, and Reese Hunkins was one of the area's top second basemen as a freshman.
How the Raiders handle the pressure of being a state champion for the first time should be interesting to follow all season. Huntley recently was named the best team in the state by Maxpreps.com.
The Peyton Bannon Show
Richmond-Burton shortstop and Wisconsin commit Peyton Bannon has a real chance to do something that would certainly qualify as unique.
A two-sport athlete, Bannon is coming off a monster season for the Rockets girls basketball team in which she set the career scoring record at R-B and led the area in scoring at 22.3 points a game. Last spring in softball, she was runner-up in the area with a .541 batting average.
Can Bannon lead the area in basketball scoring and softball batting average in the same school year? It's certainly possible.
Even if she falls short of that crazy feat, it will be a lot of fun to see what Bannon, who had 14 home runs, 10 doubles, 46 RBIs and 36 runs in 23 games last year, can do in her senior season for the defending Kishwaukee River Conference champions.
The Fox Valley Conference race
No, it wasn't Huntley that wreaked havoc on the rest of the FVC last spring. That was Crystal Lake South, which won its first outright conference title since 1986. The Gators won their first 20 games and finished 31-3, losing to eventual Class 3A state champion Sycamore in the sectional semifinals.
The Gators graduated seven but have Wisconsin commit Brooke Kuffel, Alexis Pupillo, Kyra Swartz and Baylee Kassel back for an offense that averaged more than 11 runs a game. The big question here is 'Who's pitching?' South's No. 1 from last season, Christina Toniolo, now is pitching at UIC.
Huntley went 13-3 in the FVC last season (losing to South, Jacobs and McHenry each once), and an upset is always only a bloop or a blast away.
In all fairness, Huntley should be the favorite in the FVC with a healthy Bower, but don't count out South, Cary-Grove, McHenry and Jacobs to make some noise. McHenry almost ended Huntley's state-title run last season, losing by a run in a sectional final on a walk-off hit by Hunkins.
Every team will be trying to knock off the Raiders.