The state's most competitive conference may be the Big 9, where six teams begin the week in the thick of a league title chase separated by no more than two games — including Northfield and Winona — with only a handful of league matchups left to play.
(As added proof of how good the Big 9 teams are...five of them hold spots in the Class 3A rankings from May 2 — including the top three positions.)
The statewide spotlight has shined brightest on Faribault this season, and rightfully so. The Falcons had been No. 2 in every rankings update before ascending to No. 1. But Northfield should not be overlooked and could end up stealing the show.
Northfield, which is tied with Mankato West atop the league standings, visits fifth-place Winona on Monday, and a victory over the Winhawks could be the boost in confidence the Raiders need heading into a showdown at Faribault the following day. A victory would also keep the No. 3-3A Raiders unbeaten in league play and in contention for the conference title should they fall to the one-loss Falcons, who are tied with Mankato East for third place in the standings. (Rochester John Marshall is tied with Winona).
Northfield pitcher Brynn Hostettler has been outstanding in building an 8-1 record from the circle. She has 119 strikeouts and an 0.76 ERA in 55 innings pitched, both of which are second-best in the state. (The Falcons' Armbruster is first with 180 strikeouts and an 0.47 ERA).
Winona has its own hot hitter in Lauryn Hamernik. The senior leads the state with 28 RBI, and she is near the top in two other categories: hits (23, tied for fourth) and home runs (6, tied for third). She is joined by Annika Anderson (20 hits, 13 RBI) and Grace Fricke (19 hits, 13 RBI) in a lineup for the No. 5-3A Winhawks (10-3, 4-2) that could use their batting prowess to steal away top billing from Hostettler and the Raiders.
Anderson can also be a force in the circle, where she recorded 16 strikeouts and allowed three runs (one earned) in a 3-2 loss to Faribault on April 23.