THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo
St. John’s Jesuit (19-10, 5-5), with seven returning starters back, is favored to win the Three Rivers Athletic Conference baseball championship this season.
The season officially opened last Saturday, but the extreme winter weather that pounded northwest Ohio since late December has left most area teams with limited outdoor practice time and may cause many opening-week games to be postponed.
When the ground conditions do allow teams to get into full swing, second-year St. John’s coach Greg Christian figures his Titans will be the team to chase in the standings. They received five first-place votes in a conference coaches poll.
But the TRAC title may ultimately go to the team best aligned for the conference playoffs. Just ask St. Francis de Sales coach Tim Gerken, whose Knights reached the Division I regional finals last season.
St. Francis (29-3, 10-0), conserving pitching for its state-tournament run, lost to a hot Central Catholic squad and ace pitcher Jake Rudnicki last year in the conference championship game.
St. John’s will be led by senior returnees Nolan Silberhorn (P-1B), Collin Korte (P-OF), Pete Burkett (1B-P), Jacek Czerwinski (P), and Alex Gum (OF), and returning junior starters Devon Garcia (SS) and T.J. Lake (OF).
Korte (5-2, 1.64 ERA, .333 batting average) and Silberhorn (2-3, 2.97 ERA, .343 average) make a strong, proven 1-2 mound duo with offensive punch. Garcia (.402) was the Titans’ leading hitter, and Gum (.326) also adds to the batting lineup.
Lake, like Garcia, is in his third varsity season, and Czerwinski makes a strong No. 3 pitching option for Christian’s crew.
“We have all three starting pitchers back from last year, we have good team speed, and we have lots of experience so leadership should be very strong” Christian said. “We need to be concerned with replacing two key players from last year — our catcher [Corey Tipton] and our shortstop [Jimmy Scott].”
Tipton is now playing at Toledo and Scott at Mount Union.
St. Francis received two first-place votes in the preseason poll despite returning only two starters in juniors Andy Okuley (2B) and Nick Lankard (3B-P), who were not among the team’s leading seven hitters.
The Knights, with just five seniors, do have five other returning letter winners, including senior Joey DiPierro (P-1B), and juniors Brady Ansara (C-P), Johnny Lawhead (C-P-utility), and Alex David (1B-P).
“We have a lot of two-sport athletes so we’re very athletic,” Gerken said. “If the newer players can adjust to the speed of the varsity game and our pitching holds up, we should be OK. The key will be to have some early success.”
Central Catholic (16-13, 4-6) won the TRAC playoffs a year ago despite entering as the No. 6 seed, and 28th-year coach Jeff Mielcarek has seven returning starters plus three other letter winners back from that team.
The Irish, predicted to place third this season, will be led by three third-year starters in seniors Derich Weiland (3B), Chad Kuebler (CF-P), and Kam Weber (C). Other returnees include seniors Ryan O’Hearn (2B), DeShone Kizer (LF), Noah Pierce (P), and Richard O’Donnell (SS), and junior Colin Kaucher (utility).
Weiland, a first-team All-TRAC player, batted a team-best .356, and with the graduation of Rudnicki (5-2, 0.64 ERA, 69 strikeouts), now at Ohio University, the No. 1 starter spot should be held down by Kuebler (3-2, 2.97 ERA), a second-team All-TRAC player who also patrols the outfield.
Clay (16-14, 7-3) lost one of the area’s top pitchers to graduation in Jordan Grosjean (8-0, 0.44 ERA, 87 strikeouts), who is now at Central Michigan. The Eagles have a rookie coach in former Clay and Bowling Green State University player Jim Phillips.
Also like Central, the Eagles also return seven starters, including seniors Bryce Castilleja (P-3B), Josh Pennington (1B-P), Matt York (P-IF-OF), Jay Smith (C-OF), and Kyle Row (IF-OF), and juniors Austyn Gwin (OF-P) and Ryan Fournier (SS-P).
Castilleja batted .327 last year, but was a hard-luck 1-5 on the mound with a 2.70 ERA. Three other letter winners return to add depth for Phillips, whose team was picked to place fourth in the TRAC.
“This team is a veteran group with a lot of depth, athleticism, and big-game experience,” Phillips said. “They have a chance to do some great things this year, but production at the plate needs to be way better than it was last year. Only two guys hit over .300.”
Whitmer (15-11, 5-5), tabbed to tie for fifth in the TRAC standings with Findlay, has seven seniors, but only four starters return for 14th-year coach Gary O’Connor.
Back are seniors Anthony Okdie (2B-3B), Tylor Schneider (P-OF), Jacob Czop (1B-DH), and Dan Tober (C). Of that foursome, only Okdie (.315) batted above .300, so improvement at the plate will be vital to the Panthers’ prospects for success.
Lineup newcomers include senior Devin Herzig (2B-3B), junior Chuck LeMay (P), and sophomore Shamus Dempsey (SS-3B).
“We don’t have many returning starters, but the outlook is positive,” O’Connor said. “Our pitching depth should help keep us in games, and our defense should be better overall.
“If we can keep away from making ‘young’ mistakes, we should be in the hunt.”
Findlay (20-9, 5-5) and eighth-year coach Jeff Stutzman return six letter winners from a competitive Trojans squad that placed third last year in the regular season.
Counted on to lead the Trojans will be seniors Nolan Rodman (C), Clay Rice (3B-1B), and Ryan Golden (OF-DH), and juniors Connor Curlis (P-OF), Nick Kiffemeyer (SS), and Sam McGhee (OF). A top newcomer is sophomore Grant Akin (CF), who may be the regular leadoff hitter.
Rodman led the team with .429 batting average last season, and Curlis was 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA pitching.
“The big key for us will be the other pitchers [beyond Curlis],” said Stutzman, who will rely on mound help from senior Jackson Geyer, juniors Desmond Lino and Dakota Feay, and sophomore Chandler Stillings. “We lost all our pitchers [to graduation] with experience except one.”
Fremont Ross (15-14, 4-6) and seventh-year coach Mark King will count on senior returnees Kole Amor (C), Andy Mapus (P-3B), Elijah Hampton (SS-P), and Bryce Dukeshire (2B), plus juniors Tanner Albert (OF-P), Michael Hufford (OF-2B), and Jalen Slick (OF-1B). Amor batted .363, and Mapus was 4-3 pitching with a 4.47 ERA.
“We like where we are as a team and have been focusing on upgrading our defensive performance while returning to a more well-rounded offensive approach after finding great success with the power game last season,” King said.
Lima Senior (1-21, 0-10) and first-year coach Frank Crea has five seniors as part of a group of eight returning starters as the Spartans look to improve.