Posted Online: April 12, 2014, 12:12 am

Big 6 questions for a Big 6 softball season

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By Steve Tappa, stappa@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert
Moline softball pitcher Cassie Shaw is pictured in action last season. With Shaw and others back from last season's sectional qualifier, the Maroons are again the preseason favorites to win the Western Big 6 Conference crown.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Mizener
Steve Tappa, sports writer for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.
The first pitches get thrown today in Western Big 6 Conference softball play. So it's time to consider our annual "Big 6'' questions heading into another season.

Who is the favorite? A lot of preseason talk has pointed to Rock Island because of the Rocks ability to rake. However, nonconference foe Geneseo threw caution to any favorites tag this week, 10-running Rocky at Frances Willard Field, 16-5 in six innings.

The fact is, softball is more of an offensive game than it ever has been since the pitching rubber was moved back a few years ago. More and more girls regularly take hitting lessons.

So Moline, United Township and Alleman also have potent lineups. In other words, don't get dazzled by the video-game batting numbers.

Instead, the focus remains on the mound in terms of damage control, and with 6-footer Cassie Shaw, and state finals-tested Alaina Hofmann back on the bump, that's why Moline is my pick to click.

UT has won three of the last four titles, though, and still will have a say, but perhaps the biggest graduation loss at any of the league schools was Panthers pitching ace Brooke Prior, moving on to Kirkwood. And, that's no disrespect to Moline's Jordan de los Reyes, now the cleanup hitter at Illinois State.

Since 2001, no one besides Moline (eight times) or UT (five times) has claimed the Big 6 crown, so my betting money remains on those two programs and long-time coaches Mark Gerlach (Moline) and John Alonzo (UT).

Will Galesburg and Quincy finally factor in the race? Not in the sense of contending. But as a recent state title-winning Moline team can attest, the league's two traditional bottom feeders are getting progressively better to the point that there is no looking past them.

The Maroons made that mistake a few years back, and it cost them the league title.

That said, Quincy and Galesburg combined for two Big 6 wins last season -- with the schools splitting a doubleheader. Together, they combined for 15 victories, so there's still a lot of work to be done in both programs in regards to competing with a state powerhouse softball hotbed such as the Quad-Cities.

Who are the top 6 returning position players? With de los Reyes gone, Rocky catcher Jasmine Ragusi is not only the biggest bat in the conference, she's also one of the league's top defenders.

Moline outfielder Kellie Smet also strikes fear in opposing pitchers, and St. Ambrose-signed running mate Lexi Jenkins beats teams with her feet.

In the infield, Alleman shortstop Mackenzie Sanchez, Pioneers' third baseman Izzy Anderson and UT second baseman Courtney Markin are a rare combination of great offense and defense.

Special mention to UT catcher Mackenzie Gustafson and Alleman outfielder Anna Wetherell, who could land on this list by season's end for different reasons -- Gustafson's raw power at the plate and Wetherell's toughness and fleet feet.

Who are the top 6 pitchers? Shaw and Hofmann are joined by a few other veteran Big 6 starters -- UT's Heather Johnson and Rocky's Hannah Hart, the latter the all-conference junkballer that prevented mighty Moline from sharing last season's league title with UT. Also, don't forget about Alleman's Dakota Stout, who came on late last season to pitch the Pioneers into the sectionals for the first time in seven seasons.

After that, there are a few newcomers vying to complete this list.

Who are six returners who will surprise? Moline's Michaela Guthrie patiently waited behind de los Reyes to have a senior season to remember at catcher.

Rocky first baseman Jacklyn Young also rates here, having already won Metro Pacesetter honors this spring.

Pitcher Emily Luken should factor for UT.

Also look out for much better offensive seasons from Moline's lock-down shortstop Allison Archer, UT outfielder Brooke Collins and Galesburg's do-everything sophomore Sydney Williams.

None of those six players earned All-Big 6 or All-Metro honors last season.

Who are the top newcomers? Alleman suffered the most as far as graduation losses, but Pioneers coach Mike Ebner raves about a deep and talented junior class, with Emily Hoffman (pitcher) and Caitlin DeWitte (outfield) joining the ranks of the incumbents already starting on the varsity level.

Gerlach also is high on freshman hurler Megan Adams and sophomore outfielder Megan Medinger.

Rocky coach Steve Ebner likes two additions to his pitching staff, too, in freshman Alex Sierens and junior Lindsey Kelley.

And, Alonzo boasts a "Fab Four'' of freshmen -- third baseman Kaitlyn Markin, first baseman Brittni LaFountaine, pitcher/utility player Taylor Workheiser and outfielder Alexis Coleman. Junior Katelyn Burkert also adds to the Panther pitching staff.
Steve Tappa covers Big 6 softball for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. Contact him at tappa@qconline.com or 309-757-4967.

Western Big 6 Conference standings

BIG 6 BASEBALL
Conf. Over.
W-L W-L

United Township 0-0 6-1-1
Alleman 0-0 5-2
Galesburg 0-0 6-5
Moline 0-0 5-6
Quincy 0-0 4-7
Rock Island 0-0 5-8-1

Today's doubleheaders:
Alleman at Moline, 1:30 & 3:30 p.m.
United Township at Rock Island, 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.
Quincy at Galesburg, 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.

===

BIG 6 SOFTBALL
Conf. Over.
W-L W-L

Alleman 0-0 8-2
Moline 0-0 7-2
Rock Island 0-0 6-6
United Township 0-0 3-3
Quincy 0-0 3-4
Galesburg 0-0 4-6

Friday's games:
Havanna at Galesburg, 4:30 p.m.

Today's doubleheaders:
Moline at Alleman, 1:30 & 3:30 p.m.
Rock Island at United Township, 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.
Galesburg at Quincy, 11 a.m. & 1 p.m.