FARMINGTON — District 1-4A is again on top in high school softball.
The eight-time defending 4A champions Piedra Vista enter the season as No. 1, while two-time runner-up Aztec is No. 2 in the softball high school coaches' poll for 4A, followed closely by Farmington High at No. 6.
"This district is always loaded," PV head coach Kevin Werth said. "It's the toughest in the state. Aztec is loaded. FHS has almost their whole roster back. Kirtland is working hard, and they've improved a lot. I wouldn't be surprised at all if all four teams are in the state playoffs."
The Lady Panthers return four first-team all-state players with infielders Breanna Salas and Tegan Woosley and outfielders Danielle Ortiz and Tabor Woosley.
Werth expects that crew to help lead the squad early in the season.
"The one thing about this group is they work their tails off," Werth said. "These girls have been busting their butts in practice and in the weight room, and our leaders are doing a great job."
The Lady Panthers lost four first-team all-state starters as well, including pitcher Krissy Fortner and shortstop Susie Chandler.
Werth is going to go with a committee in the circle to start the season, with Megan Risner, Halie Hutson and Tegan Woosley each getting a chance to throw.
"All three of them could see time," Werth said. "Tegan is really valuable in the field, though, and I feel like we lose a little there when we ask her to pitch. All three have been working hard, and we'll see what happens."
Until the pitching situation settles, Werth believes his offense will be more than enough to compensate if there are any early struggles for the Lady Panthers.
"We've always hit the ball pretty well," he said. "Hopefully, the kids will put the bat on the ball and help the pitchers until that situation settles itself."
Aztec returns its top two pitchers from last season in right-hander Angela Minjarez and left-hander Hailey Morris.
Lady Tigers' head coach Jose Santistevan likes having that one-two punch in the circle as his team looks to finally dethrone PV.
"We're excited and ready to go," Santistevan said. "Our goal going into the year is to win the state championship."
The Aztec coach has also been pleasantly surprised with his team's hitting during the preseason scrimmages, led by third baseman Alix Johnson, who was second-team all-state a season ago.
"I was thinking that the pitching was going to carry us, but our hitting is coming around," Santistevan said.
As the season goes on, Santistevan hopes his squad progresses on the field as the Lady Tigers try to reach their peak for the state tournament.
"We want to be competitive every ball game. I want the girls to know there is no one we'll look past, and there's no one better than us," he said.
In any other district in 4A, Farmington High would be among the favorites, but with PV and Aztec in the Lady Scorpions' way, Farmington head coach Johnny Curry knows his team has its work cut out for it this season.
"It's just this way every year. It's the toughest district in any class," Curry said. "Maybe 6-4A can be comparable with teams like Los Lunas and Valencia, but even 1-5A with Las Cruces doesn't compare."
The Lady Scorps finished fourth last season in the 4A state tournament, and Curry expects his team to build off that experience and compete for the title this year.
"Last year, it was a lot of firsts for our team," Curry said. "It was the first time those girls played PV in district. It was the first time we played 5A schools. We discovered a lot about ourselves last season."
FHS lost just two seniors off last year's roster, so with the majority of the team back, Curry expects improvement this season.
"They've been there and seen it. We know what to expect," Curry said.
The Lady Scorps return both pitchers, Jordan Curry and Sicily Villano, along with outfielder Katelynn Flack, who was second-team all-state.
Kirtland Central has a tough task ahead competing against three of the top six schools, but second-year head coach Rod Yellowman has seen improvement in his team.
"The players just know the game and our defense, and, hopefully, the hitting steps up," Yellowman said. "We have to have a strong run before district. We want to get that confidence up. We just have to do well."
KCHS hopes to compete for a playoff spot after missing out on the state tournament a season ago.
"Our goal is to compete. I have a young team, but they're mature though," Yellowman said. "Should be a fun season. We're just going to take this game by game."
The Bloomfield Lady Bobcats will be among the state title contenders in Class 3A.
Bloomfield enters the year No. 4 in the preseason poll.
Head coach Andi Clark said her team returns five starters from last season. She believes last season's loss in the state playoffs will serve as motivation for the girls this season.
"I think we'll do well," Clark said. "We've hit the ball well and have some speed."
Among the returning starters for the Lady Bobcats are Chelsey Runyon and Jasmine Sappington, who were second-team all-state last season.
Shiprock hopes to improve off of last year's No. 10 seed and looks to host a first-round playoff series.
"Our goal is to get into the top eight," Lady Chieftains head coach Levi Toledo said. "We just have to get some wins and do well in tournaments. I'm hoping we do pretty well against the 4A schools as well."
Bloomfield will be tough for Shiprock to pass for a district title, but Toledo said that is something his team strives for.
"We want to get close to them," he said.
Navajo Prep finished with a strong season in 2013, entering the 2A bracket as the No. 3 seed. But the team went just 1-2 in the state playoffs and exited the tournament earlier than expected.
"When we got beat, we knew we should have closed the door," Prep head coach Darin Wright said. "That was a great building block, and they don't want to settle."
Prep lost only one senior from last year's team, but its biggest departure came when Kiera Rocke chose not to play this season.
Rocke was one of the best hitters in 2A, batting .716 for the Lady Eagles last season, and her loss will be tough to replace, Wright said.
"We'll have to do some other stuff," Wright said. "We'll need to move people around and play small ball. That's how we'll replace that offense."
Despite earning a No. 3 seed, Prep wasn't in the preseason top 10 after they were mistakenly left off the coaches' ballot.
"I believe people think we're good. It's just tough to vote for us if we're not there," Wright said. "We talked about it, and we want to fly under the radar."
Prep is hoping last year's experience will give the Lady Eagles a better chance during the playoffs this season.
"We're an athletic team, that's going to make some noise," Wright said. "We have a legitimate shot. We needed to clean some things up."Joshua Perry can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4577. Follow him on Twitter @jperrysuu.