A pair of Sparks-area coaches have mixed feeling about the new format.
"I liked the old format better," Spanish Springs softball coach Jeff Davidson said. "Personally, I liked having all the teams there, competing at one site. You got to watch the other games. It felt more like a tournament and the atmosphere was great."
Reed coach Jon Wunder knows his team will host at least two games in the tournament. He likes that advantage but he too admitted the old format had real pluses.
"It's always nice to play on your home field, but (perennial regional host) Manogue has always done such a great job," Wunder said. "Our girls are actually kind of bummed. It's neat to bring all the teams out to one field. It give the girls a sense of accomplishment like, 'we made it here.' It's going to be interesting. The ultimate thing is it's going to benefit teams that are not real deep in pitching. That's the biggest difference."
Both Spanish Springs (22-6, 9-4) and Reed (21-4-3, 12-1) have earned playoff berths, but they are in much different situations heading into the final week of their spring campaign. Both teams have three games remaining in their regular season. Reed, which swept Spanish Springs last weekend, has clinched the High Desert League title and it's No. 1 playoff seed.
Spanish Springs could still end up seeded anywhere from second through fourth, depending on the outcomes of games throughout the region Thursday and Saturday. The SSHS squad currently sits second in the HDL standings and does control its own destiny. If the Cougars win their final three games — a single game at home against Carson Thursday and a doubleheader at home Saturday against North Valleys — they will be the HDL's second seed and host a first-round playoff game Tuesday at 4 p.m.
"You always want to control your own destiny," Davidson said. "We have an opportunity to be the No. 2 seed. That's our goal right now, to finish strong and be the No. 2 seed.
"Right now, I feel like we need to improve and just relax. I don't think we're playing at the top of our game. We're going to work real hard in practice, try to get focused on the games we have this week. We've got to get dialed in there pretty soon."
Defense has to be the main concern for Spanish Springs during its stretch run. The Cougars 'D' has let it down in recent games against some of the North's top teams. In an 8-2 loss to defending North champion Damonte two weeks ago, Spanish Springs committed six errors. In a 4-3 loss to Reed last Saturday, the Cougars had five fielding miscues.
"Our errors have led to big innings for our opponents," Davidson said. "I think our pitchers have actually done a good job all year long. They haven't received the defensive support they need to get in those big games.
"Defense is the area we've got to improve to compete in and win those games. We're focusing on that a lot in practice this week. We're hitting a lot of ground balls to our infielders. We're doing a lot of drills with the outfielders, diving drills, working on backing up everything. We're working on situations with runners on, trying to simulate game situations as best we can."
At Reed, the Raiders have had a key focus this week as well, but it has not been defense. The Raiders have been making key defensive plays at every turn, but Wunder said his team should be more consistent at the plate.
"We have not struck out a lot this year compared to last season," Wunder said. "Strikeouts are down and we're getting more production overall from the lineup, but we still have tendency to lift the ball. We need more consistent base hits and in a timely manner. When we have baserunners on, we have to change our approach.
"In practice, we go out there and put runners on. We give the hitters a 1-1 count. We challenge them to hit the ball to the opposite field. We play games and keep points. We challenge them. It's about making practice competitive. The kids are having fun with that, too."
The Sparks teams may be in different emotional places following Reed's sweep of last weekend's twin bill between the rivals, but both coaches are focused on getting their teams to look at the task at hand. For Spanish Springs, that's Thursday's conference clash at home against Carson, a team it has seen just once this season, a 7-3 home win in late March.
"The talk we've had all year is that you have to move forward," Davidson said. "When a game is over, you may talk about your deficiencies, but then you put it behind you and talk about the next game and the next opponent. You try not to look ahead or back ... Our first goal is to qualify for regionals, then it's to play well at regionals. The reason you play is to get to this point. The team is excited and focused on working hard in practice. We'll give it our best shot."
While Reed has already locked up a league title, it still has some formidable foes on its schedule. Thursday's opponent, Damonte has yet to lose a conference clash and Saturday's foe, Reno, beat Reed a few weeks ago in the semifinals of the Raiders' annual spring tournament.
"Our kids are not putting pressure on themselves," Wunder said. "It's not that we don't want to win the (Damonte) game, but it's not do or die. We've seen Douglas and Reno and Spanish Springs, a few times, but we haven't seen Damonte. We're using this almost as a practice game. This could be a potential matchup in the playoffs.
"This is a lot of fun. We're all enjoying this. It may only be a week away from our season being done, but that hasn't even crossed our kids' minds."
First round games of the North Region tournament begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the home fields of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeded teams from the High Desert and Sierra leagues.