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List of teams hoping to knock off two-time defending champion Butte Central is long

Who can stop Butte Central?

The Maroons gun for their third straight Class A softball championship beginning Thursday in Polson, but unlike the last two seasons, they aren't the undisputed favorite.

Butte Central, which has played in the state title game the last four seasons, is 17-3. Its 55-game winning streak was snapped early in the year by Hamilton, which is among a group of five or six teams which figure to be in the title hunt.

"There just doesn't seem to be a dominant team," said Polson coach Larry Smith. "Everyone seems to have beaten everyone else. There are a lot of comparisons between wins and losses. I don't see a favorite."

"There will be a lot of intensity and it will be a lot of fun," said Hamilton coach Steve Weston. "It will be one of the better ones in a while."

Libby (14-8) is the Western A champion and has won four state titles, the most recent coming in 1998. Hamilton (18-4) won the Central A title vie a tiebreaker over Central and has arguably the top pitcher in the tournament in junior Melissa Weston (15-3).

Polson (14-7-1) is playing at home and is always a threat at state. The Pirates finished third in 1999 and second in 1997.

Billings Central (16-6) won the Eastern A title and was last year's runner-up. Laurel (17-5) finished second in the Eastern A and also has a strong tradition.

Hamilton cruised behind Weston to its best regular season in several years. Weston pitched six shutouts and enters state with a .083 ERA. Weston was on her game at the Butte Central tournament two weeks ago when she threw a no-hitter in a 6-0 win over Billings Central and also shut out Laurel 1-0 on the same day.

"We've had good pitching and good defense," Coach Weston said. "We've only allowed one earned run in our last six games. Pitching and defense have been our strengths, but we need to hit the ball in order to win."

Senior shortstop Krystle Peterson batted .536 during the regular season to lead the Broncs' offense.

Libby won the Western A with a 9-1 league mark, but struggled with consistency. The Loggers lost to Butte Central, Laurel and Billings Central at the Butte Central Invitational.

"We've been pretty unstable," said Libby coach Dean Thompson. "If we can come through and hit the ball well like we did toward the middle of the season, we have a pretty good shot."

Libby has a pair of quality pitchers in senior Juli Barnes (6-4) and junior Lacey Thompson (8-4). Erin Cooper batted roughly .390 during the regular season and Stacey Bothman hit .385.

Polson also has a pair of quality pitchers in Amber Wock (10-2) and Erin Turnage (5-5). Polson's leading hitters are catcher Lena Dailey and third baseman Ashley Meidinger. Dailey is hitting over .500 and Meidinger is hovering around .440.

"There is a lot of excitement in the air around the community," Smith said. "We're feeling very positive about things. I think we'll be competing right until the end."

Corvallis, the third-place Central A team, figures into the darkhorse category. The Blue Devils have endured season-ending injuries to catcher Kellie Smith and reserve pitcher Erin Jarvis to post a 12-8 record. Erin Jarvis went 11-6 on the mound and Heather Ruhnke is one of the most dangerous hitters in the state.

Ken Larson's club closed the season by losing four of five. The stretch included losses to Billings Central, Hardin, Hamilton and Butte Central - all tournament teams. Corvallis closed the season with a 13-6 win over Frenchtown.

Ronan (6-12) finished fourth in the Central A. The Maidens' only win over a team in the tournament was a 4-3 triumph over Columbia Falls in April. Still, Ronan is a dangerous team. Just ask Hamilton, which notched a 3-0 win last week despite being no-hit by junior Jenaia McGreevey (6-12). McGreevey also tossed a no-hitter against Stevensville.

Columbia Falls (10-10) is the third seed from the Western A. Columbia Falls is led by pitcher Stephanie Robertson and juniors Terra Pyles and Melissa McReynolds The Wildcats open against Eastern A Glendive at 11 a.m.

Whitefish (11-8-1), the fourth seed from the Western A, might be the hottest team. The Bulldogs finished 8-0-1 in their last nine games with the tie coming against Florence at the Butte Central tournament.

"Maybe it's one of those things where we're peaking at the right time," said second-year Whitefish coach Eric May. "We feel we have a chance to get past Corvallis in the opener. If we're able to get past Corvallis, we've got a pretty good bracket."

Whitefish's top hitter is Laura Harthan (.452). Sophomore Mae Clark is hovering around .400.

Billings Central's leading hitter is Emily McCray, who missed six games with an injury and will likely DH. She's batting .395. Ashley Dobson compiled a 10-2 record on the mound for the Rams.

Laurel's top hitters are Tiff Saatzer (.449) and Tonya Saatzer (.400). The Locomotives' ace is Sami McDonald (9-2).

It will surprise no one if Butte Central notches the three-peat. The Maroons are led by pitcher Lindsay Thatcher (11-3). The offense is led by Kelsey Orizotti and Erica Mahoney.

Reporter Jon Kasper can be reached at 523-5247 or by e-mail at jkasper@missoulian.com.

Pairings

At Polson

Thursday

Hamilton (18-4), bye

Billings Central (16-6), bye

Butte Central (17-3), bye

Libby, bye

11 a.m. - Polson (14-7-1) vs. Hardin (15-7)

11 a.m. - Glendive (7-11) vs. Columbia Falls (10-10)

1 p.m. - Laurel (17-5) vs. Ronan (6-12)

1 p.m. - Corvallis (12-8) vs. Whitefish (11-8-1)

3 p.m. - Hamilton vs. Polson-Hardin winner

3 p.m. - Billings Central vs. Glendive-Columbia Falls winner

5 p.m. - Butte Central vs. Laurel-Ronan winner

5 p.m. - Libby vs. Corvallis-Whitefish winner

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