Three Pasco County all-star teams and one from Hernando County are vying for the Dixie Softball League Ponytails championship.
They will be joined by all-star clubs (ages 10-12) from Belleview, Sebring and Mulberry in the state tournament that begins today and continues through Sunday at the Mulberry Sports Complex, located off State Road 60 eight miles west of Bartow.
Defending champion West Pasco American, West Pasco National, Zephyrhills and Hernando complete the seven-team field.
"West Pasco American is going to be the team to beat and they're back with almost everybody," Zephyrhills manager Phil Castro said.
"We always want to play well and generally do," West Pasco American manager Robert Blankenship stated. "I suppose there is pressure (to repeat as champion). We're kind of expected to do well, but we try not to dwell on that. We just play."
Four returning pitchers _ Brandy Krieg, Beth Ann Blankenship, Supriya Kumar and Ali Bigger _ give West Pasco American an edge on the mound.
Krieg, cleanup hitter Nikki Jacobs and Candace Day are the team's best hitters. Defensive standouts are shortstops Blankenship and Bigger, third baseman Vanna Larson and second baseman Elizabeth Borges.
West Pasco National, last year's state runner-up, also has its share of returning all-stars: Sarah Haney, Jayme Johnson, Courtney Kline, Bijal Parikh, Nikki Prack, Amanda Salvarezza and Kelly Wilkins.
Manager Melody Johnson would like nothing more than to unseat her team's closest rival.
"They're our worst enemies and our best friends," she said. "We practice on the same field and the kids all know each other. We're known as the underdogs and I'd really like to surprise them this year."
Kline and Haney are the top pitchers. Johnson catches, Haney is at third (when not pitching) and Allison Young is solid at shortstop.
Offensively, Johnson has a .683 batting average and Haney hits .671. Breanne Hill, who pitches and plays second base, bats above .500.
Prack, who is recovering from a broken ankle and may play sparingly, provides inspiration. "She's got the biggest heart on the team," Johnson said.
"No mistakes and strong defense" are what Castro said Zephyrhills needs to improve on last year's third-place finish in the state tourney.
The team's defensive strengths lie on the corners with Tara Paronto at first base and Kim Reynolds at third. Leftfielder Ashley Tunker is the outfield standout.
Melissa Martinson and Jean Morel will platoon behind the plate.
"It's going to be hot," Castro said. "Both of them can stop the ball and throw runners out at second."
Pitcher Debbie Suggs draws the opening assignment, and Mindy Mitchell is the other starter. Castro plans to use Kristie Brown in middle relief, and the closers are Andrea Counsell and Ashley McGavern.
Counsell and McGavern are expected to supply offensive power, and Paranto is a speedster on the basepaths, Castro said.
Today's matchups are: Hernando vs. West Pasco National, 6 p.m.; Sebring vs. Belleview, 6 p.m.; Zephyrhills vs. West Pasco American, 8 p.m. Mulberry draws a bye as host city.