Apex finished second to Middle Creek in last year’s Southwest Wake Athletic Conference, but advanced the farthest of any SWAC team in the postseason.
The Cougars fell in the 4A East best-of-three series to eventual champ D.H. Conley.
Middle Creek (16-2, 14-0): The Mustangs, the 4A East runners-up in 2014, were upset by Panther Creek in the first round a year ago. Its only other loss was the season-opener against D.H. Conley.
Coastal Carolina recruit Devin Wallace, the 2014 SWAC player of the year who won the district pitcher of the year, leads the way hitting (batted .528, 23 RBIs) and pitching (9-1, 0.73 ERA).
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Lily Morris and Wallace are two four-year starters for the Mustangs. She hit .264 a year ago.
Apex (20-6, 11-3): Brings back senior pitcher Julia Cerasi (1.93 ERA), first baseman Olivia Chiarolanzio (batted .308) and catcher Kaitlyn Long (batted .459, 29 RBIs). Long was the district’s player of the year. Coach Bonnie Hodge retired after the season and Dana Higgins now takes over the reins.
Fuquay-Varina (14-6, 10-4): Senior Ashlyn Long (batted .408, a three-time all-conference selection committed to Western Carolina, leads the Bengals’ returners along with senior pitcher Cassidy Keith.
The Bengals lineup cranked out 17 home runs last year and returns Hayden Parker, Brianna Smith and Cathan Soto (.327), among others.
Green Hope (10-9, 8-6): The Falcons bring back all but one player from last year’s fourth-place team, including two of their all-conference players: junior Kameron Phillips (batted .396) and senior Shae Condon (.375).
Senior catcher Cameron Cook (.314) and junior pitcher Katelyn Ellard also return.
Panther Creek (10-11, 5-9): The core of last year’s group that made it to the third round as the 30-seed returns: junior catcher Rachel Johnson (batted .385, 19 RBIs), junior shortstop Sarah Aukamp, sophomore outfielder Julia Barrineau and junior Sarah Aukamp. Only three players from a year ago have graduated.
The Catamounts have stunned two softball powers in the playoffs in their only postseason berths: Wake Forest in 2014 and Middle Creek last year.
Holly Springs (7-12, 5-9): Senior pitcher/first baseman Ashton Jones, senior Latia Burt and junior Abby Anderson are three returning all-conference players for the Golden Hawks. Holly Springs was one of six SWAC teams to make the playoffs and only graduated two players.
Athens Drive (3-15, 2-12): Last year’s team had no seniors and should be much-improved. UNC-Greensboro recruit Melanie Darges batted .356. Also returning are Laura Windom, Carleight Hiscock, Aibgail Bennett, Madeline Denton and Bianca Van Dyk (.375) led the team in hitting and pitched as well.
Cary (1-15, 1-13): Western Carolina recruit Erica Hayes, a senior, is a dangerous hitter for the Imps.
Apex Friendship: Coach Mike Hopkins leads the first group of Patriots.
Last 10 conference champs
Tournament champs in parentheses*
2015 - Middle Creek
2014 - Middle Creek
2013 - Apex
2012 - Holly Springs
2011 - Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina
2010 - Apex
2009 - Fuquay-Varina
2008 - Fuquay-Varina and Middle Creek
2007 - Fuquay-Varina
2006 - Fuquay-Varina (Fuquay-Varina)
*Tournament discontinued in 2007