Clear skies and a new location await a talented pool of teams at the 31st annual Queen of the Mountain softball tournament.
Julie Marshall has assembled a competitive group of squads while moving the event to the Pleasanton Sports Complex in her first year as tournament director.
The three-day tournament, which spent many years at Concord's Willow Pass Park, gets under way Thursday afternoon, with the championship game scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday.
A total of 15 East Bay teams will participate in one of Northern California's best early-season events, headlined by two-time defending champion Amador Valley.
The top-ranked team in the nation by MaxPreps, Amador Valley is led by Arizona State-bound pitcher Johanna Grauer and a stellar junior class.
Sheldon-Sacramento, the defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champion and the tournament's runner-up last season, is also part of the field.
Marshall, an alumnus of the tournament from her high school playing days at Liberty, wants to secure even more top-notch teams in the coming years.
"I have a master plan, a three-year plan and a five-year plan," she said. "This year I wanted to get the best teams I could on the notice I had and get the most competitive pitching I could. I want to make it bigger and better, and hope in the next three years it's one of the top tournaments in the country."
Amador Valley and Sheldon are the only two teams in the field that are state-ranked. But there are several squads capable of spoiling a rematch of the 2012 championship game, which the Dons won 8-3.
Sheldon will have a tough opening round game against a Concord team that won the North Coast Section Division II title a year ago.
Heritage and California are also on that side of the bracket and could meet in the quarterfinals. The squads faced off in the NCS Division I quarterfinals last spring, with the Grizzlies prevailing.
Cal ace Lindsey Chalmers is back for her senior year and Heritage returns its top offensive threats in Malia Rivers and Ali Ramirez.
Marshall organized a scholarship fund for the tournament, and four players that exemplify good effort and attitude will receive $250 each.
Marshall took over as tournament director after spending the past six years as Amador Valley's head coach. She stepped aside in the offseason and was replaced by her former assistant, Teresa Borchard.
"They're not going to miss a beat," Marshall said.
Deer Valley has been one of the best teams in the East Bay over the past six years, sporting a combined record of 189-33 in that time. The one thing missing from its resume is a North Coast Section Division I championship.
But things could change.
Deer Valley has one of the more talented teams it has ever had and could be considered the favorite in Division I, where there is no clear-cut favorite for the NCS playoffs.
"We will only be as good as our ball control allows us to be," Wolverines coach Lou Panzella said. "If we pass efficiently and play defense, we have lots of people who can put balls away."
The Wolverines lost only one starter off last year's team that went 37-4, and will boast possibly the most dangerous player in the East Bay in Marcus Lee.
The 6-foot-9 middle is a University of Kentucky basketball commit and will join the volleyball team after the basketball season.
"I think Marcus will help us be better," Panzella said. "He is athletic, jumps and hits well and is just a natural shot blocker. He can do things on the volleyball court that you just can't teach."
Deer Valley also returns possibly the best setter in the East Bay in Derrico Kwa, as well as sophomore Jordan Ewert, who was a standout last season as a freshman.
-- Matt Smith, correspondent