Normally being designated No. 1 in the nation is a crowning achievement. Except when it's preseason. And despite the polite objections of coach Ron Clarke, California's Fairfield High starts out No. 1 in the Student Sports FAB 50 national softball rankings.

The road to the FAB 50 national softball championship almost always runs through California, but this year, it runs through Arizona. Well, sort of.

Once again, the preseason No. 1 is from California -- Fairfield High, with strikeout queen Alicia Hollowell -- but with no clear-cut dominant team in the state this year, it makes for a wide-open national title hunt.

With that in mind, the national champ could well be decided at the Arizona Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, Ariz., in mid-March. That's where Fairfield, FAB 50 No. 2 Flowing Wells (Tucson, Ariz.) and No. 4 Foothill (Tustin, Calif.), among a host of other talented teams, could decide it on the field. The only other legitimate preseason national title contenders are two Texas schools -- No. 3 Katy and No. 5 Coppell.

Of course, winning the tournament doesn't guarantee national recognition. After all, last year's national champ, Bullard (Fresno, Calif.), didn't play in the event, while last year's tournament champ, Flowing Wells, floundered during its in-state schedule and didn't even make the final FAB 50 rankings.

The interesting thing about this whole rankings puzzle is Fairfield and its coach, Ron Clarke, who swears that his girls aren't deserving of No. 1. But with Hollowell, arguably the most dominating high school pitcher ever, and losing just three players from last year's 35-3 team, the Falcons at least seem like a good starting point. Also, Fairfield is the only school in the country brave enough to play in the Bullhead City tournament plus the Best of the West tourney in Santa Maria and will then fly to Ohio to play in the Wendy's Classic against some of the Midwest's best teams. It is definitely the most challenging schedule any softball team in Northern California has ever set up and is among the toughest in state history.

"We just have to live with (being No. 1), I guess," Clarke said. "I just don't think we have the supporting cast to be No. 1. Some teams like Clovis have everybody back except one or two kids. We really don't have a leadoff hitter, so we have to develop one."

Fairfield might have trouble scoring runs, but all-league players like junior catcher Robin Hudson and junior second baseman Tina Gotay hope to solve that problem. Outfielder Rachel Hudson and infielders Julie Hatcher and Shauntell Forbes are also key returnees. And, of course, there's Hollowell. The University of Arizona signee is the only pitcher in the national record book with more than 600 strikeouts in a season and she's done that twice. She also starts the season with 1,757 career strikeouts, which is just a little more than a hundred off the national record of 1,881 set last year by Tanya Coates of Bangor, Mich.

Super-speedy Foothill of Tustin (30-4 last year) placed at No. 4 in the Student Sports preseason rankings and it would surprise no one to see the Knights on top at season's end. Coach Joe Gonzalez will have four Div. I college signees in the lineup, including OF Autumn Champion (Arizona), 3B Tiffany Haas (Michigan), C Jamie Dotson (Northwestern) and IF Jessica Reiten (Northwestern). Watch for a key contribution to come from incoming freshman Lori Gilbert, who pitches and hits.

The third highest California team in the Student Sports rankings is No. 9 Esperanza of Anaheim. Losing only a starting shortstop from the CIF Southern Section runner-up in Division I, coach Dennis Fox could have the one of the better teams in California. The Foothill tournament will go a long way in deciding that. Junior Kristen Dedmon and her 0.07 ERA are formidable. Four others back are all-state caliber players: Diana Eberlein (sr. 3B), Kira Lindwall (sr. RF), April Murray (so. CF) and Ashley Johnson (so. C).

Clovis was right behind Esperanza at No. 10. Among the powerful Central Valley triumvirate of Bullard, Buchanan and Clovis, it's the Cougars (29-12 last year) who have the most back this spring. Pitcher Jennifer Reynolds was one of the best freshmen in the state a year ago. The entire infield and a host of others, including Alex Belardinelli (sr. SS) and Nicole Willis (jr. C), also return.

It's tough to drop Bullard too far after what the Knights did last year (36-1) behind California player of the year Marissa Marzan so they will start out at No. 16 in the nation. Marzan is now gone and the pitching obviously is a question mark. But coach Jaime Maxey has a strong corps of returning position players to build around, including all-state underclass IF Stephanie Salazar and jr. IF Alexis Foth.

Mira Mesa of San Diego (22-4-1 last year) also cracked the top 25 and landed in the No. 22 position. With the CIF Southern Section looking a bit more wide open than usual, the door could be open for this San Diego program to sneak up high in both the state and national rankings. Only two seniors were on last year's team and among those back is jr. Lisa Dodd, who pitched 16 shutouts with three no-hitters and hit .476 last season.

Canyon of Anaheim (24-9 last year) was yet another California team in the top 25. Coach Lance Eddy came back last year after a hiatus and his young team made noise early with a semifinal appearance at the Arizona TOC. Jr. P/IF Lisa Geer and jr. C Erin Sletvett  lead a strong contingent of returnees. The Commanches are beginning at No. 24 in the nation.

Four other California teams were placed in Student Sports FAB 50 in the No. 25 to No. 50 range. College Park of Pleasant Hill, which went 27-1 last year with a young squad and was the top team in the CIF North Coast Section, heads that group at No. 27. The other three are Carlmont of Belmont (No. 33), Kennedy of La Palma (No. 40) and El Toro (No. 48).

Chosen as among 30 others to watch were Buchanan of Clovis and Mater Dei of Santa Ana.

The complete Student Sports preseason FAB 50 softball rankings can be found on the website. Those rankings plus the Student Sports preseason All-America team are available in the March edition of Student Sports Magazine. Call 1-800-660-1334 to subscribe.

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