United Township and Rock Island squared off Friday night, but today is the official opening day for another Western Big 6 Conference softball season.
So it's time to consider the "Big 6'' questions heading into another Big 6 season.
Who's the favorite? Moline coach Mark Gerlach is unwilling to accept the favorite's tag, withsix starters among eight seniors gone from last season's third-place Class 4A state finisher. Plus, the defending Big 6 champs have a completely reshuffled infield, with their lone position players back settling into new spots on the diamond.
"But at Moline, they don't rebuild, they just reload,'' lamented UT coach John Alonzo, among the many picking the Maroons to reign again."In the summer, when you watch these ASA games, and see these great players, you find out more often than not, they're going to Moline.''
How will early-season weather woes affect the race? The dark-horse in the race, Alleman has an advantage returning nine starters from last season's 21-win team.Without the usual complement of preseason games to get prepared, Pioneers coach Mike Ebner hopes to capitalize on his club's continuity, especially in today's opener at Moline.
"These kids know what we're looking for,'' Ebner said. "Hopefully there's an advantage to having defined roles already without having to do much experimenting like some of the others.''
UT also hopes a pair of returning All-Big 6 pitchers give the Panthers an early edge, especially against batters with little outside hitting time.
Who are the top 6 returning position players? Moline's Jordan de los Reyes remains the Big 6's biggest threat with a bat, no matter where the Illinois State-signed slugger lands on the diamond.
Rock Island shortstop Hailey Feldhahn isn't far behind at the plate, either.
UT's Brooke Prior also won this column's "Big 6 Ironman Award'' for a reason last season, as the league's premier threat on the mound, the plate and in the field -- now at shortstop.
Don't forget Alleman's Chasney Jenkins, either. Last year's Big 6 batting champ also plays a mean centerfield.
Alleman's Avery Nelson also is a close second to Prior in the circle and at the plate, playing first base when not pitching.
Nelson's batterymate, Maddie McGuire, also deserves a nod here as a three-year starter at the most-demanding position in a lineup chock full of experienced talent.
Special mention, too, for Rocky catcher and captain Jasmine Ragusi.
Who are the top 6 pitchers? After two-way stars Prior and Nelson, Moline's Alaina Hofmann hurled the Maroons to postseason success as a sophomore last season.
Moline's current sophomore phenom, 6-footer Cassie Shaw, also will share pitching duties after seeing time in the circle at the state finals last season.
UT's other All-Big 6 pitcher, Heather Johnson, also was a shutdown freshman a year ago, and has shown she'll be a lineup staple at the plate this season, too.
After that, instead of singling out one of several local kids vying for time, remember that Galesburg returns Kaylee Mesecher from a feisty program on the rise.
Who are six returners who will surprise? Moline junior Allison Archer moves to short after handling second, and performing in the shadows, during the Maroons' postseason run.
Moline senior Miranda Marion also moves from third to second, where I'll bet we see her finally blossom fully.
As for non-starters from a year ago, UT's Hailey Lenth looks to join sophomore classmate Johnson in keeping the Panthers clawing for the Big 6 title.
Rocky's Hannah Hart also didn't start last season, but saw a little action behind two senior hurlers, and will need to be a stopper this season.
Rocks' coach Steve Ebner also expects big things out of senior captain Kylee Villarreal.
I also suspect we'll see Rocky junior outfielder De'Aysha Walker and Alleman junior shortstop Mackenzie Sanchez realize their full potential.
None of those listed have eclipsed honorable mention all-league or Dispatch/Argus All-Metro status before, if mentioned at all.
Who are the top 6 newcomers? Moline boasts half of the new names you'll certainly come to know this season.
Besides Shaw, who also showed in the season's first week she can hit, the Maroons have another murderer's row developing with junior Michaela Guthrie and sophomore Kellie Smet.
Also bolstering Rocky's lineup are a pair of Morgan's -- Twing at second and McCready in the circle.
Alonzo's top newcomer so far has been left fielder Brooke Collins, who can hurt you with the bat, glove or feet.
Special mention to Galesburg freshman Sydney Williams, and Alleman's second pitcher, with sophomores Molly Ethington and Dakota Stout battling to fill the only open hole for the Pioneers.
Steve Tappa covers Metro Softball for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 309-757-4967.
Western Big 6 Conference standings
BIG 6 BASEBALL Conf. Over. W-L W-L Alleman 0-0 7-0 Rock Island 0-0 7-2 Moline 0-0 5-2 Galesburg 0-0 8-4 United Township 0-0 3-2 Quincy 0-0 2-5
Today's doubleheaders: (11 a.m. & 1 p.m.)
Moline at Alleman Rock Island at United Township Galesburg at Quincy
BIG 6 SOFTBALL Conf. Over. W-L W-L United Township 1-0-1 1-1-1 Alleman 0-0 4-1 Moline 0-0 3-1 Galesburg 0-0 3-3 Quincy 0-0 1-4 Rock Island 0-1-1 2-4-1
United Township 9, Rock Island 8 United Township 4, Rock Island 4 (4 innings; ppd. by darkness to Thursday)