HELENA — It's been two years since the last time Class AA had a state softball tournament due to COVID-19 and in that time, a lot has changed. A lot has also stayed the same as seven of the eight teams return from 2019.
Great Falls High was the champion two years ago and the Bison technically bring the title of defending champion to Kalispell, where seven other teams will join them competing for AA softball's ultimate crown.
Here's everything you need to know about the tournament which starts Thursday and runs through Saturday at the Kidsports Complex.
2019 Champion: Great Falls High
Who's back: Billings Senior (18-6) , Billings West (19-4), Great Falls High (16-8), Kalispell Glacier (21-3), Missoula Sentinel (20-3), Helena High (13-11) and Helena Capital (15-9).
Who's new: Belgrade (17-6)
Leading off: While seven of the eight teams competing in Kalispell for the state title are back, the one new team to the AA tournament, isn't new to state softball — not in the slightest.
That team is Belgrade, which is taking part is its inaugural season of AA softball this spring after the 2020 season was canceled. Yet, prior to the Panthers move up to Class AA, they were the three-time defending Class A champs (2017-2019) and have the look of a serious contender this year after finishing second at the Eastern AA Divisional.
Belgrade lost 5-4 to Billings West, the top seed out of the East in last week's Eastern AA title match and the Panthers will open Thursday against Helena Capital, the No. 3 seed from the West.
So in addition to Great Falls High, the AA tournament has a second state champion this week, even though Belgrade won't be defending its Class A crown.
In the circle: Winning postseason games in softball, often comes down to pitching and the team with the best hurler this week might be Billings Senior.
Junior Kennedy Venner has been dominant for the Broncs on the bump and just this month, has multiple games with at least 15 strikeouts. She leads the state with 228 strikeouts and averages 1.8 K's per inning. Incredibly, 45 percent of at-bats by opposing hitters, end in strikeouts.
Venner is second in the state in ERA (1.60) and while Grace Hardy of Sentinel has the top spot, Venner is the only pitcher in Class AA to have an ERA under two, as well as more than 100 innings pitched.
Alison Eldridge of Billings West, Arin Eaton of Belgrade and freshman Ella Farrell of Glacier, are some of the other top arms, as well as Hardy and also Kynzie Mohl of Glacier, two U-M softball commits, who pitch and play in the field.
Around the bases: Pitching and defense may ultimately decide who wins the state title on Saturday, but there should be plenty of fireworks this weekend in Kalispell and five individuals enter the tournament with at least 10 home runs to their credit this season.
Mohl leads the state with 16 home runs for Glacier, followed by Morgan Sunchild of Great Falls High with 12 and Amber Countryman of Helena High with 11. Lauren Blaschak and Brooke Richardson each have 10.
With a .648 average, Mohl also leads the state in that category, as well as RBIs (50) and will be hoping to lead the Wolfpack to their first state championship since 2015.
Yet, following a loss last week to Missoula Sentinel and future teammate Hardy in the Western AA title game, Glacier will open as the No. 2 seed from the West and will take on Senior at 4 p.m., pitting the best hitter Mohl, up against Senior's Venner in the opening round. The winner of that game will face the winner of Helena High and Eastern AA champion, Billings West, which also starts at 4 p.m.
Sentinel, the Western AA champ, will open with 2019 champion, Great Falls High. That game starts at 2 p.m., along with Belgrade and Capital.
The tournament uses a true double-elimination format and the first state title game (of two if necessary) is set for Saturday at 12 p.m.