Previewing the 2011 softball state tournament

All three Metroplex teams in the 2011 softball state tournament share one obvious goal -- taking the next step.

Each team has a recent past that includes the heartbreak of finishing a season short of individual ultimate goals.

Plano (5A) and Forney (4A) have already taken their next step, breaking through the final barrier of a regional final, where Plano met its season’s demise in 2010 and Forney in 2009.

Celina (3A) came within one game of bringing home a state title in 2009, but fell short to Needville in the state title game, 3-1.

Each team enters the state finals with a chip on its shoulder, ready to prove that this year’s squad has what it takes to take the final steps that previous teams could not finish.

All the games of the 2011 state softball tournament will be held at Red and Charline McCombs Softball Field on the UT-Austin campus. Here is a breakdown of each of the area teams heading to the state tournament:

Class 5A: Plano (39-4) vs. Northside O’Connor (33-4), 5 p.m. Friday

Plano is making its first trip down to Austin for a state softball tournament in what many thought would be a rebuilding year.

Plano lost four seniors from last year’s squad and returned just two for the 2011 campaign, leaving the team very young, but as it turns out, very hungry.

"They're so driven," head coach Cynthia Zea said. "They absolutely have one thing in mind and that's to come back with a state title. They're not even thinking about just being happy to be there."

Junior pitcher Katherine Batey is the catalyst of this reloaded Plano squad, working effectively inside the circle and providing a little power at the plate, as well.

The offense is sparked by speedy leadoff hitter Kristen Miles, whose slap-hitting style results in line shots falling all over the outfield for great contact numbers.

How is this underclassman filled team able to fill the void that four star seniors left and surpass the goals even last year’s team set? The answer lies in the common denominator between the two -- head coach Cynthia Zea and her philosophy on teamwork.

Last year, before entering the regional final best-of-three series against Keller, Zea told ESPNDallas.com, “We’re not a team that depends on one big player. It seems like it is somebody different every game,’’ despite having three college signee seniors.

This year, after Plano’s Game 1 win over Keller in the regional finals, Zea echoed the same sentiment.

“That’s what’s great about this team, we don’t have a superstar. We have nine kids that, any night, one could pick up the top [of the order],” Zea said. “The top could do well and then next night the bottom could do well. That’s what I think makes this team so hard to beat.”

Any one of the nine players on the field could be the one to continue Plano’s best softball run in school history, and frankly, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.

Class 4A: Forney (36-7) vs. Waco Midway (37-4), 2 p.m. Friday

The 2011 season had a rocky beginning for Forney.

Two years removed from losing in the regional finals, and coming off a quick second round elimination in 2010, Forney was left without a pitcher.

Two candidates for the starting pitching role in 2011 were forced to move for family reasons, leaving head coach Eric Montgomery with an interesting option -- moving catcher Macie Tillery out from behind the plate and into the circle.

“When those two had to move off for family issues… she said, ‘I’ll do whatever I can for the team,’ ” Montgomery said of Tillery.

What she did for the team was go 25-5 this season, pitching 175.67 innings with a 1.91 ERA.

“She’s got a bulldog personality,” Montgomery said.

Standing in the way of an appearance in the state finals is defending 4A state champion Waco Midway. Forney has no reason to be scared of a big game now after running through one of the toughest brackets in Regions I or II, beating Frisco Wakeland and Frisco Centennial in the regional semifinals and finals.

Forney’s offense is a unit without an identity, Montgomery said, meaning they aren’t limited to just a small-ball or long-ball game, but can adapt to what their opponent gives them.

“If we see the opportunity to go small and play the quick game, we’ll play the quick game. If we have the opportunity to take some big shots and let the bats do the work for us, then we’ll do that. It just depends on who we’re playing.”

The ability to adjust was a lesson learned after Forney lost to Waco Midway early in the season. This time around, with his team focused on making adjustments, Montgomery said as long as they can keep the ball in the park, they would have a good chance to get a more important win over Midway.

“They’re a good base-hitting team, and if you leave one up in the zone most of them are a threat to hit one out or hit one deep. We’ve just got to keep the ball in front of us and play our game.”

Class 3A: Celina (34-6-3) vs. Huntington (31-8), 8:30 a.m. Friday

Celina fell just one game away from bringing a state title back to North Texas in 2009.

Four starters from that ’09 squad are still with the team and were left with a bitter taste that they hope to find redemption from this weekend.

The experience in ’09, while disappointing, has paved the way for a more experienced current team to have a title shot without the awe that the state tournament brings.

“They know what Austin’s all about,” head coach Billy Coleman said. “They know they have to go down there and play ball -- make defensive plays and get timely hits.”

Junior ace Katelyn Drummond, a Texas Woman’s University commit, gets it all started for Celina in the circle. She is a crafty pitcher who uses spins to throw batters off their timing but won’t overpower anyone with a fastball, Coleman said.

Drummond pitches to contact and will need strong defensive play behind her to give Forney a chance.

“That’s our motto: Defense wins championships,” Colman said. “It’s something we take pride in.”

Celina drew 2008 state champs Huntington in the state semifinals, making its first trip back to the state tournament since the title run.

Coleman said he believes any opponent Celina faces in the state tournament won’t surprise his team after the journey they made through a tough region.

“As far as going to the state tournament and facing top notch pitching, our region was pretty tough and I don’t think we’re going to face any pitching that was tougher than our region, so I think that’s going to help.”