Looking up and down the Class 5A, District 8 softball standings this season, a comparison can be drawn to the meat grinder that is Major League Baseball's American League East.
And just like the division the Tampa Bay Rays call home, the top of 5A-8 is loaded and the remaining teams are just a notch behind.
So is this brutal regular season and district tournament a gift or a curse?
"I like it," Plant City coach Heidi Kouveras said. "It's the toughest district in the county and it's where I want to be. I guess it's the competitor in me."
If Kouveras enjoys being in the thick of things, she and the Raiders are in the right district, and they have a pivotal game on Saturday. Plant City plays host to Durant in a game that was rescheduled from Tuesday because of inclement weather.
"I want these girls to play these teams during the year," Kouveras said. "They need to see how strong the competition is and what they need to advance far in the playoffs."
Durant coach Matt Carter agreed that from top to bottom, 5A-8 was the area's best.
"You have some good teams in Tampa like Chamberlain, but those districts are split," he said. "Our (district) is complete all the way through."
And that last statement isn't just coach speak. As of press time Wednesday, three teams from the district are either ranked in the state or are receiving votes. Plant City is currently No. 3, Newsome No. 9 and Durant just a couple votes out of the top 10.
"I'm happy with the year we've had so far," Carter said. "But there are a bunch of other teams having good years, too."
East Bay and Riverview are also right in the mix as the teams jockey for tournament seedings down the stretch. The district tournament is set to begin April 18-21 at Plant City with the winner and runnerup advancing to the postseason.
Area teams also proved last month that the stiff 5A-8 slate is helping them in tournament play. Durant won the Spring Fling tournament at the end of March, outscoring the field 31-1.
"Our bats really came together in that tournament," Carter said.
Meanwhile Plant City finished runnersup in their bracket at the prestigious Kissimmee Klassic April 1-2. The Raiders defeated three top five teams in the state over the weekend and lost 2-0 to top-ranked Sarasota in the final.
"We, as coaches, knew what they were capable of, but it was good for the girls to go to that tournament and see it for themselves," Kouveras said. "It gave them a ton of confidence."
And area fans will have plenty to look forward to in the upcoming years. Durant has just one senior and four juniors, in addition to nine freshmen — three of whom start. Plant City has only four seniors and Newsome loses just five after this season.
"There's a lot of neighborhood rivalries with these girls from (youth) travel ball," Carter said. "We're really young and I'm not going to say we're loaded, but we have a lot of good, young talent to look forward to."
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.