One of my favorite portions of the high school sports year just potentially got a lot more fun.
That’s thanks to the new softball and baseball area alignment for the four local high schools, which was released by the AHSAA last week.
One of the biggest takeaways from the alignment for me, selfishly, is that all four county softball teams should play in the SAME REGIONAL should they all advance that far in their seasons. This is something that has never happened since I returned to the Leader sports desk for the 2013 season.
Outside of football playoffs, the softball regionals are hands down my favorite events to cover every year. But every year there would be at least one team that, due to the way the areas lined up, went to a different regional location than the others. It would be Handley and Wadley in Troy, with RCHS and Woodland in Tuscaloosa. Or RCHS in Oxford and Handley in Tuscaloosa like we had last year.
With this new alignment all four county schools fall in area 7 or 8 in their respective classifications, which means (keep your fingers crossed) they could all be playing in Oxford come next May. That will make for a fun three days in which we could very well see all four teams work their way through their respective brackets.
Outside of that here are my biggest takeaways for each team out of the new area set-ups.
Woodland moves from a competitive 2A area to 1A and immediately becomes the favorite to win an area title. I’d call that a good realignment day for the Bobcats.
Nothing against Winterboro and Talladega County Central, but those two schools have not traditionally been a factor in baseball. So it will be great to see Woodland and Wadley play three games next spring with area supremacy on the line.
And why is Woodland considered the favorite here? It’s because Wadley just graduated eight seniors off of its roster, including No. 1 pitcher Blaine Caldwell. There’s a lot of holes to be filled on the Bulldogs’ roster.
That’s not the case in Woodland, who will have a team that lost just four seniors, only three of whom contributed significantly. A lineup built around Dalton Bolan and Eli Rollins will put up a lot of runs in a pitching-starved area, and that means Woodland has a clear path to its first playoff berth since 2012.
Much like when Woodland was in this area, RCHS’s competition for a top-two finish will be from Ranburne and Horseshoe Bend. But based on recent history, RCHS brings a much stronger pedigree to the area and elevates the competition level overall. Go ahead and consider the Tigers the favorite to win this area, with Ranburne bumped back one spot from front-runner to potential spoiler.
A look at recent history suggests that this should be a fairly evenly matched area. It hasn’t been that long since Handley shared an area with Munford, as they were foes in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Handley took two of three against Munford in ’17 and won the area (which also included Anniston and Saks), and Munford returned the favor in ’18 to claim first in the area that year.
Meanwhile Cleburne County has gone 3-2 against Munford over the past four seasons, while the Tigers have gone just 2-6 against Handley in that same time.
Perhaps no other team will benefit more from realignment than the Woodland softball team. First, they are no longer in a cutthroat area with Ranburne and Ohatchee. Second, Woodland was poised to make noise in class 2A this past season, and potentially make a run at a state tournament berth when the season was canceled. The Lady ‘Cats lose just one senior from this past year’s team and will have the talent and experience to contend at a state-title level in class 1A. This new area will be a stepping stone to those aspirations.
Meanwhile, Wadley missed a regional for the first time in a very long time last year, and the young Lady Bulldogs probably won’t be able to keep pace with Woodland’s burgeoning powerhouse. But Wadley has a shot to finish second and give Randolph County a clean sweep of the top two spots in this new area.
RCHS drops down from class 3A, but they don’t catch much of break. They’ll have to contend with two teams in Ranburne and Horseshoe Bend who are very much accustomed to winning area titles and playing deep into regionals.
RCHS is still a program on the rise, however, and if the Lady Tigers can continue to develop some reliable pitching arms they should be well positioned to compete in this area.
Handley is another team with plenty of young talent, but Cleburne County was in the midst of one of its most promising seasons in recent memory when the season came to an end. In one of their last games of the season Cleburne County pitcher Jayci Boozer struck out 18 Handley hitters and allowed just one hit and one walk in a 6-1 Heflin win.
Boozer will be back next season, so the competition for the area’s top spot will be fierce.