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Lakeville catcher Erika Rozell.

1 NEXT TEAM UP

When Elk River won the Class 3A title last year, 2013 became the ninth consecutive season with a different large-school champion. From the looks of things, 2014 will be much the same. The Elks have the talent to repeat but will have to replace a big bat in the graduated Kathi Opsahl. Lakeville North, with a pair of senior all-state selections in pitcher Michaela Zins and catcher Erika Rozell leading a veteran lineup, inherits the early-favorites role. Also with legitimate title hopes are Maple Grove, with superstar junior hurler Sydney Smith; Prior Lake, led by sophomore third baseman Justus Perry and senior catcher Kara Lattery; senior-dominated Shakopee and hot-hitting Orono.

2 MOVING UP

From a recruiting standpoint, Minnesota has already established itself as a hotbed for girls’ basketball and volleyball players. From all appearances, softball might be next. Maple Grove pitcher Sydney Smith committed to Louisiana State before her freshman year. Prior Lake sophomore Justus Perry recently changed her earlier commitment from perennial power Arizona State to Auburn. And Rosemount freshman pitcher Gabby Sprang has given a verbal commitment to 2013 NCAA Division I runner-up Tennessee.

3 ENDLESS WINTER, PART II

For the second consecutive year, the lingering winter weather had teams going to great lengths to prepare for the season. Before Monday, most teams hadn’t set foot outside except to shovel off fields, spending all their practice time in gyms, batting cages and softball domes. “We use this time to work on our fundamentals,” Orono shortstop Rebekah Smith said. Concordia Academy coach Gina Tupper conceived a novel approach to avoid going stir crazy. “Our team will be doing a team-building event with an etiquette class,” Tupper wrote in an e-mail. “Possible topics may include: Making a great first impression, apologizing, giving and receiving compliments, expressing gratitude, the art of a good two-way conversation, dining room dos and dont’s and phone and tech etiquette.”

4 BACK ON TOP

From 2008 through 2011, New Life Academy of Woodbury was dominant in Class 1A, winning four consecutive championships. The Eagles have since rebuilt, getting as far as the Class 1A title game in 2013 before losing to Blooming Prairie. Behind their junior battery of pitcher Valerie Hohol and catcher Malorie Giere, the Eagles are poised to soar back to the top.

5 ADDING A FOURTH

Softball will expand to four classes beginning in the spring of 2016, the Minnesota State High School League voted in January. The breakdown will be similar to the four classes of basketball: The top 64 teams in enrollment will comprise Class 4A, with the next 64 largest making up Class 3A. The remainder of the teams will be split evenly to create Classes 2A and 1A. Expect growing pains as smaller programs scramble to develop a pitching pipeline. But overall the difference, at least at the top of each class, should be unnoticeable.

JIM PAULSEN

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Tag(s): Featured  Star Tribune  Blooming Prairie  Lake  New Life Academy of Woodbury  Shakopee  Elk River  Maple Grove  Prairie  Lakeville North  Prior Lake  Rosemount  Woodbury  Concordia Academy  Orono