The road to a high school softball state championship is a path with about as many changes over the last several years as I-565 has seen.
In 2018, area teams had to advance through the regional in Huntsville to earn a trip to the championships at Lagoon Park in Montgomery.
That changed in 2019 when the regional site was moved to Coffee O’Neal Park in Florence.
In 2020, the trip hit a dead end just barely after pulling out of the driveway thanks to COVID.
Now in 2021, the destination for the state tournament is different. Instead of Lagoon in Montgomery, it’s now Choccolocco Park in Oxford.
The regional remains in Florence, and this area is going to be well represented there this week. Thirteen area teams have advanced to the double-elimination tournaments in Class 1A-6A.
The regional format has not changed. Two teams from each classification advance to the state tournament that runs May 18-21.
Here’s a look at what’s ahead this week:
• Class 6A: Play begins at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday with Hartselle vs. Minor and Athens vs. Fort Payne. Second-round games are 4 and 6 p.m. The state-qualifier games are scheduled for Thursday at 1:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.
Which teams advance? Athens has been ranked No. 1 all season and has to be the regional favorite, but don’t look past No. 6 Hazel Green, No. 7 Hartselle and No. 9 Cullman. If Athens and Hartselle both win their first games, they would meet in the second round on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Can Hartselle’s pitching and offense answer the call this week?
• Class 5A: Play begins at noon Wednesday with Brewer vs. Corner, Ardmore vs. Russellville and East Limestone vs. West Point. Second-round games are 4 p.m. The state-qualifier games are scheduled for Thursday at 1:45 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.
Which teams advance? This looks wide open with No. 5 Hayden, No. 6 Ardmore, No. 8 Corner and No. 10 West Point. The other four teams, Brewer, Guntersville, East Limestone and Russellville can’t be overlooked. Ardmore and Brewer could meet in the second round. If that matchup happens in the winner’s bracket, at least one of those teams has a good chance of heading to Oxford.
• Class 4A: Play begins at 10:45 a.m. Friday with West Morgan vs. Randolph and West Limestone vs. Madison Academy. Second-round games are 4:45 p.m. The state-qualifier games are scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. and 1:45 p.m.
Which teams advance? Rogers had been at the top of the state rankings all season, but then lost in its area tournament to Brooks. Rogers starts regional play with No. 5 North Jackson. Brooks gets No. 6 Madison County. West Morgan, which may have improved the most of any area team from the start of the season, opens with Randolph. West Morgan has been red-hot with freshman pitcher Abby Lindsey.
• Class 3A: Play begins at 9 a.m. Friday with Danville vs. J.B. Pennington, East Lawrence vs. Holly Pond, Elkmont vs. Plainview. Second-round games are 1:45 p.m. The state-qualifier games are scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. and 1:45 p.m.
Which teams advance? No. 3 Plainview and No. 10 Danville are the only ranked teams in this group. Can Holly Pond, East Lawrence, Fyffe, J.B. Pennington or Elkmont stop Plainview or Danville from advancing? Plainview has won 35 games. Danville has great pitching with Blayne Godfrey, but needs its offense to step up.
• Class 2A: Play begins at 9 a.m. Thursday with Falkville vs. Pisgah and Hatton vs. North Sand Mountain. Second-round games at 1:45 p.m. The state-qualifier games are scheduled for Friday at 12:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Which teams advance? This regional is loaded with No. 1 Pisgah, No. 4 Mars Hill, No. 6 Hatton and No. 9 Red Bay. Two really good teams are not going to advance. It’s difficult to see one of the four unranked teams — Falkville, North Sand Mountain, Colbert County and Lexington — breaking through.
• Class 1A: Play begins at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday with Athens Bible vs. Waterloo. Second-round games at 6 p.m. The state-qualifier games are scheduled for Thursday at 10:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m.
Which teams advance? No. 3 Skyline and No. 6 Belgreen have to be the favorites. Athens Bible, Marion County, Hackleburg, Covenant Christian, Waterloo and Lynn fill out the field.