WELCH - A year ago, Welch was the new kid on the block at the Class A state tournament. Now the Lady Wildcats are “grizzled veterans.”

WHS, which qualified for both the fast- and slow-pitch state tournaments last fall and spring, are in the fast-pitch field again.

“Last year, we were just happy to get there,” Welch coach Josh Schertz said. “This time, we want to be there all three days. You've got to think you can and we think we can.”

The third-ranked Lady Wildcats (31-7) take their first step Thursday when they battle No. 6 Velma-Alma (20-25) at 6:15 p.m. in a game at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

‘If we hit the ball like we can, we have as good of a shot as anybody,” Schertz said.

No. 1 Sterling (26-11) faces eighth-seeded Bray-Doyle in the noon opener. No. 4 Depew (30-5) meets No. 5 Keota at 1:45 p.m. with No. 2 Fort Cobb-Broxton battling No. 7 Dewar (30-6) at 4:15 p.m.

Sterling stopped Depew 2-0 in the 2006 championship game.

The championship was the fourth overall for the Sterling program which took home three titles in a row from 1985-87.

But it ended a recent trend of finishing second.

The Lady Tigers have been regulars at the state tournament, finishing as runner-ups to Davenport in 2002 and 2003 and again to Sentinel in 2004.

Velma-Alma coach Jimmy Miller refused comment on his team when contacted by the News-Record Tuesday evening.

“I would really rather not talk to you about it,” he said. “Other than that, everybody up there is going to be pretty good. It's going to be a lot of fun.”

“Their (the Lady Comets) record is very misleading,” Schertz said. “Everyone I have talked to said they are very good. They are very athletic. The pitcher is good. They play well.”

Velma-Alma has played state qualifiers Sterling, Fort Cobb and Bray-Doyle during the regular season. It beat Soper 5-0 to get into the field.

“Their pitcher throws a screwball, dropball and curve ball,” Schertz said. “Last year, she was throwing 58-59 (mph) and I've heard she has lost a little velocity. She doesn't throw riser as much as she used to, but throws the drop to make up for that. They are playing a tough team every game.”

While this is the second straight trip to the state meet for the Lady Wildcats, it's the fourth straight for pitcher Kalleigh Chrz, who went twice while at Picher-Cardin.

“She does everything,” Schertz said. “She is batting .470 and can lay bunt down any time. She is an all-around player.”

Chrz hit milestones for strikeouts, wins and RBI over the course of the season.

“When you have a pitcher and catcher like we've got (Chrz and catcher Jordan Amos), it's hard to get on base,” Schertz said. “They won't steal many bases because she will throw you out most of the time. When you can't run, it's hard to score. We will have to make error or two to give up a run. And Kalleigh won't give up many hits.”

The Lady Wildcats had to battle back through the losers' bracket to get into the state tournament. They swept Oaks 7-0 and 4-1 last Friday in the championship round.

“Leppla (Kirsten Leppla) has really started hitting the ball - she's really on a tear,” Schertz said. “The first half of the year, (Ashley) Marlow was not getting on base and we had trouble scoring runs. Before the 13th (in a marathon elimination game with Woodland), she was leading us off and I told her ‘you get on, we win.' And she did. If it's a 1-0 game, she is the one that scores the run. She is just all over.”

There will be an 8:30 a.m. sendoff for the team from the high school on Thursday.