Since the advent of the four-class playoff system, the Class 4A baseball regional in the southern half of the Southwestern Conference has been extremely intense.
O'Fallon has enjoyed the most recent success, winning regional titles in seven of the last eight years and earning the No. 1 seed again this spring.
But the Panthers are 3-3 against the regional field and the five teams range from 2-4 against each other (Granite City and Collinsville) to 4-3 (Belleville East and Belleville West).
"It might be the toughest regional in the state," Belleville West coach Lee Meyer said. "I'm sure there's a lot of people that feel like that. There's a lot of teams playing well, everybody has good pitchers. It's going to come down to key hits and the little things that help make teams successful.
"It's tough year-in and year-out, but as far as teams beating up on each other ... we did that all year. It's going to be a tough road for anybody that wins this regional."
Just like the conference race, where West (21-12 overall, 11-3 in the SWC) edged Edwardsville (26-9, 10-4) and O'Fallon (23-12, 10-4), expect this regional to be as tight as usual.
"It may be more wide open than any other year," Belleville East coach Todd Blomberg said." Everybody puts a guy out there that can win games, so it's going to be a very tough regional. I think runs are going to be at a premium."
Among the talented pitchers in the regional are Parker Beine (6-4, 2.18 ERA) and Cory Renois (5-0, 2.37) from West and East's Sam Bassett (4-3, 1.77 ERA) and Brandon Hoguet (4-5, 2.22 ERA).
Collinsville has Missouri recruit Tanner Houck (3-3, 2.44 ERA), Paul Suess (3-4, 2.02 ERA) and Zack Mathes (1-0, 1.17 ERA, five saves), O'Fallon counters with Tyler Herbert (4-4, 1.81 ERA), Robert Guithues (6-0, 1.27 ERA) and Blake Deatherage (6-1, 2.76 ERA) and Granite City's ace is Austin Busick (2-4, 3.12 ERA).
"It's a great regional," O'Fallon coach Jason Portz said. "There's not a team in that regional that can't come out on top."
It starts Monday with Granite City (14-20) traveling to Collinsville (16-10), with the winner getting a shot at top-seeded O'Fallon on Wednesday.
East (17-13) will play West (21-10) for the fourth time this season in the other semifinal Thursday, with the regional title game set for 11 a.m. Saturday at O'Fallon's Blazier Field.
O'Fallon has won 11 of its last 15 and despite an offense that hasn't produced big numbers at times, the Panthers are always a tough out in the playoffs.
Their top run producers have been Tanner Hudson (.392, 10 doubles, 34 RBIs), Jeff Hahs (.382, eight doubles, three homers, 35 RBIs) and Brenndon Tindall (.341, 25 RBIs).
East's top hitters have been Domonic Blaylock (.360, five RBIs), Hoguet (.346, 12 RBIs), Marty Brunk (.319, seven doubles, 16 RBIs), Danny Snyder (.309, 10 RBIs) and Anthony Garza (.266, five doubles, 21 RBIs).
Driving the West offense has been seniors Aaron Meyer (.470, nine doubles, 16 RBIs), Nick Van Osdale (.347, 13 doubles, 21 RBIs) and Alex Sharos (.265, 16 RBIs).
Houck (.310, eight doubles) leads Collinsville with 19 RBIs while Zack Mathes is hitting .438 with 10 RBIs. Suess is at .357 with 10 doubles and 13 RBIs.
Granite City's offense includes Arkansas recruit Chad Spanberger (.404, 10 doubles, four homers, 22 RBIs), Alex Godair (.370, eight doubles, 23 RBIs), Jake Daily (.330, 20 RBIs) and Dalton Kuehnel (.329, seven doubles, 15 RBIs).
This regional added Quincy last season and now the geography has been furthered skewed with the addition of Danville and Pekin.
"Coach (Mike) Waldo's been out on the road and has been traveling a lot," Edwardsville coach Tim Funkhouser said of the Tigers' longtime pitching coach. "Right now we're just compiling information on those other teams."
That won't be necessary for No. 2 seed and SWC rival Alton, a team Edwardsville beat 8-1 and 3-1 on back-to-back days in late April.
Edwardsville has rebounded from a 6-6 start to win nine of its last 10 games.
"Overall I think our focus has been better and we're executing better," Funkhouser said. "Before, we were always a pitch away from getting out of an inning or a hit away from breaking up a game and making it in our favor or widening out the lead. We've done that a lot more consistently lately."
Edwardsville has the St. Louis-area home run and RBI leader in St. Louis University recruit Drew Curtis (.402, 10 doubles, 10 homers, 46 RBIs, 37 runs scored).
Heartland College recruit Blake Graham (.420, nine doubles, two homers, 14 RBIs, 40 runs scored, 31 stolen bases) is another offensive catalyst along with catcher Alec Pizzini (.346, five homers, 23 RBIs) and Western Illinois University recruit Jordan Heckler (.345, nine doubles, two homers, 20 RBIs).
Pitchers Cole Hagen (6-1, 0.84 ERA) and Zack Sparks (6-3, 0.89 ERA) have been dominant at times for the Tigers.
Alton also has heated up after an inconsistent stretch, winning its final six games.
The Redbirds are led by Indiana University recruit and potential major league draft pick catcher Brent Gibbs (.424, 19 doubles, two homers, 33 RBIs), speedy outfielder Ron Wisnasky (.486, 12 doubles, four triples, 30 RBIs, 43 runs, 23 stolen bases) and Ray Bailey (.386, two homers, 17 RBIs; 5-4, 2.94 ERA).