NEW ORLEANS — The city of Sulphur is but a dot on the Louisiana map.
But this weekend it will be the softball capital of the state, with 56 high school teams vying for their seven respective state championships at the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s Fast Pitch 56 State Tournament. And the New Orleans area will be well represented, with eight teams competing.
All have been there before — some more than others. And all have one goal: to get to the last game of the season.
The action starts Friday with the quarterfinal rounds at Frasch Park. In Class 5A, No. 1 seed Hahnville will take on No. 9 Mount Carmel Academy at noon and No. 5 Fontainebleau will play No. 4 Live Oak at 2 p.m. In Class 4A, No. 4 Belle Chasse will play No. 5 DeRidder at 6 p.m.
In Class 3A, No. 7 St. Charles Catholic of LaPlace will play No. 2 Buckeye at noon.
In Class 2A, No. 1 John Curtis (29-1) will play No. 24 Winnfield (16-14) at 2 p.m., and No. 7 DeQuincy will play No. 2 Riverside Academy at 6 p.m. And in Class 1A, No. 5 Archibishop Hannan (21-8), the two time defending state champion, will go for No. 3 against fourth-seeded Central Catholic at 4 p.m.
Friday’s winners will advance to Saturday’s semifinals. All finals will be played Saturday evening.
Hahnville coach Kenny Vial is taking the Tigers to Sulphur for the fifth straight season. After finishing as runner-up in 2010, the Tigers finally got their elusive title in 2011. And they expected to repeat in 2012, but didn’t, in large part thanks to a play at the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning. Sam Houston scored two runs in the ninth to win, 2-1.
“We were so close,” said Vial. “We were six inches away from winning the game. It’s hard. But we’re going back this year, and we realize that everybody in this field of eight has a chance to win.”
In another game where story lines are aplenty, the Tigers (29-3) will take on No. 9 Mount Carmel (22-7) in a rematch of a 2010 Class 5A quarterfinals, which Hahnville won 2-0. Then-Cubs coach Jerry Nugent is now an assistant at Hahnville. The teams have played three times this season with a total of eight runs scored in the three games. Hahnville has won twice.
This is second-year Cubs coach Jake Pierron’s first trip to Sulphur, but seven of his players are veterans of the trip.
“We’re very excited to play,” Pierron said. “The girls are very confident. We’ve played them three times and we know we can beat them and we know they can beat us. I think we can hang in there with the best of them.”
Awaiting the winner will be the winner between Fontainebleau (25-4), making its second trip to the tournament and its first since 2001, and Live Oak.
“Our girls are really excited about experiencing the state tournament, especially our six seniors,” said Fontainebleau coach Chris Nelson. “It’s a different environment with big crowds and the noise coming from the other games. But with six seniors, I think they’ll settle down pretty quickly.”
Belle Chasse coach Tony LaBella said this year’s Class 4A race is a tight one. He said his Cardinals (29-3) are a contender.
“This team surprised a lot of people,” LaBella said. “We lost four seniors starters. And a lot of people thought, if we didn’t get it done last year, that was our chance. But statistically, this might be a better team. I’m not surprised we’re being successful.”
In Class 3A, St. Charles Catholic (21-6) has become a regular in Sulphur. This is the school’s ninth consecutive trip and Ty Monica’s seventh.
“Every one is different,” Monica said. “They all have different personalities and different work ethics.
“The fact that we’ve gone every year, I think, says a lot about the program. And once you’re there, anything can happen. Our goal is to be playing on the last day.”
For Riverside (27-7) and John Curtis (29-1), Friday’s game will be the end of an era — for now, anyway. Both regular competitors at the annual tournament and both winners of a state crown (or a few), the Patriots and the Rebels have become fierce rivals over time — in all sports. The two have stood in each other’s path on the way to many championships.
Curtis is not only the defending state champion, it also is nationally ranked. The Patriots also had a 59-game win streak until losing to Vandebilt Catholic in the regular-season finale. But after this season, Curtis will move up to Class 3A while Riverside will remain in Class 2A.
“I’m not going to say it’s a bad thing,” said Riverside coach Kristy Hebert, who led Curtis to several titles before moving to Riverside. “It has become a big rivalry over the last few years. But to me, it’s competition. We don’t look at what team we’re playing. To us, everybody’s the same. We just try to do whatever we have to do to win. And honestly, I hope we do cross paths because that would mean we’re in the finals.”