Cardinal Stritch and perennial small-school state baseball power Ottawa Hills tied for the Toledo Area Athletic Conference baseball championship a year ago, and those two teams are expected to be in the thick of the hunt for the title again this season in what promises to be a wide-open race for the top.
Cardinal Stritch (12-13, 10-2 TAAC) and third-year coach Craig Meinzer picked up only two of the seven first-place votes in a preseason poll of conference coaches.
But the Cardinals topped Ottawa Hills 42-37 in total voting points to be as targeted as the projected champion.
Coach Chris Hardman’s Green Bears received three first-place votes, and the teams tabbed for third and fourth, Gibsonburg and Toledo Christian, respectively, picked up one first-place nod each in the poll.
The Cardinals will rely heavily on four returning starters — seniors Brooks Gasser (P-OF), Jake Empie (P-3B), and Robert Johnson (OF), and junior Austin Wlodarz (2B-P) — and Meinzer also has six other letter winners to provide depth.
“Coming off a good season and having eight seniors should help us be more competitive,” Meinzer said. “We have some good young pitchers, and talent that hopefully will continue to get better.
“The players in the program are starting to learn how to win, and if we continue to play good defense, pitch well, and do the little things, we hope to be in good shape.”
Ottawa Hills (15-16, 10-2) may be hard-pressed to challenge for the title with only one returning starter, plus two other letter winners back, but Hardman, in his 34th season with the Green Bears, remains optimistic.
He will be counting on senior Geoff Beans (1B-P) to lead the way as the only experienced player. Beans batted .274 a year ago, but was not one of the team’s top pitchers.
Hardman sees seniors Jake Swafford (C) and Noah Hupp (OF) and junior Parker Riepenhoff (SS) as his top prospects among the newcomers to the lineup.
“We are quite inexperienced,” Hardman said, “but are confident our guys will develop quickly so we can be competitive in our league and district.”
Gibsonburg (18-9, 5-7) and 10th-year coach Kyle Rase got good results outside of TAAC play last season but did not fare so well within the conference.
With six returning starters, plus five other letter winners back to provide experience and depth, the Golden Bears hope to make a strong title run.
Back are seniors Andrew Cantrell (1B), Sam Kohler (C), Gabe Hickman (P-3B-DH), and Jacob Auld (OF), junior Jordan Kreglow (SS), and sophomore Brent Hayward (P-OF).
Cantrell (.354 batting average) and Kohler (.338) are each fourth-year varsity players who were first-team All-TAAC selections in 2013. Hickman was third in the TAAC in hitting at .427, Hayward batted .353 and was 4-1 pitching with a 2.89 ERA, and Auld hit .328.
“We have several returning starters from an 18-9 team and return 85 percent of the innings pitched from the pitching staff,” Rase said. “We will count on our experience as a strength.”
Toledo Christian (12-16, 7-5) also returns six starters for first-year coach Tab Greenlee, who enters with abundant optimism.
Back to lead the way are seniors Cody Brown (P-OF), Andrew Gast (P-utility), and Brandoen Eldred (CF), and juniors Judd Nearhood (SS-2B), Kyle Kempton (2B-SS), and Brett Freeman (3B-P).
Kempton batted .398 last season, Gast .385, and Eldred .310. Freeman was 2-0 pitching with a 2.95 ERA.
“It’s going to be between Cardinal Stritch and us,” Greenlee said. “It should be a good year for us. The key will be the mental aspect and being able to come back if something goes bad in the middle of a game. We’ll have to be able to bounce back.”
Northwood (19-11, 8-4) also has a first-year coach in John Segura, who has three returning starters plus another letter winner back.
Senior Jake Davenport (SS-C-P) and juniors Myles Habel (C-3B-P) and Jack Romstadt (2B-SS-P) lead the returnees, and the top lineup newcomers are expected to be juniors Stephen Sutton (P-utility) and Steven Gutekunst (P-3B).
They will try to offset big losses to graduation, like the potent trio of TAAC player of the year Nick Russell (.479 average, six home runs, 38 RBIs, 7-3 pitching record), John Segura (new coach’s son, .404, 3-0 with a 2.69 ERA pitching), and Justin Rohrs (.381, 5-1 pitching).
“After losing seven seniors, we’re in a position where we need to rebuild,” coach Segura said. “It has to start with the four letter winners. We’ll have to play a complete game — throwing strikes, fielding the ball, and hitting. If we do those three things we should compete well in the league.”
For Danbury (2-21, 0-12) and coach Adam Steinbrick, there is nowhere to go but up in the TAAC.
The Lakers lost only two seniors to graduation and will look to get leadership from five juniors — Chase Botson (P-SS), Mike Stys (C-P), Alec Calton (P), Jack Tyson (P), and Ryan Chapman (C-utility). Botson hit .397 a year ago.
“We return a squad that is young and shows a true love for the game,” Steinbrick said of a varsity roster that includes no seniors. “We are eager to begin the 2014 season. Our team strengths are experience and leadership.”
Emmanuel Christian (3-20, 2-10), like Danbury, is also without a single senior.
Warriors coach Ken Kahsen will look to juniors Nathan Dick (IF) and Aaron Scheiderer (IF-P) and sophomores Adam Regnier (IF-P) and Bennett Longacre (C) to lead the push to climb in the TAAC standings.
Also counted will be sophomore newcomers Alex Arbogast (IF-P) and Harrison Zarecki (OF).
“We are very young and will be focused on becoming sound in the fundamentals, and learn to compete on every pitch,” Kahsen said.