The Lake baseball team is coming off a historic season, and respect for the Flyers has them pegged as the early favorites to win a third straight league title.
Lake won a school-record 24 games last season and captured a Division III district title. The Flyers won the last Suburban Lakes League title in 2011 and the first Northern Buckeye Conference championship last season.
Led by junior pitcher Jayce Vancena, who has verbally committed to play at the University of Michigan, the Flyers are the preseason favorites to win the NBC and are expected to earn a “three-peat.”
“It means they respect our program,” veteran Lake coach Greg Wilker said.
But Wilker, who has a 473-297 record in 29 seasons, said he lost a great senior class of eight standouts, including four pitchers.
“They played at a high level all season,” Wilker said. “Eight seniors are gone, and they were all starters. So I’m little surprised by [the poll]. It’s an honor. Other teams have more experience.”
Otsego returns a veteran group and are expected to be neck and neck with Lake. The Knights are led by senior pitcher Ryan Smoyer, who has signed to play at Notre Dame.
“We have a solid core of seniors to provide leadership,” Otsego coach Chase Welker said. “We look to be competitive in every game we play.”
Lake (24-6 overall, 11-3 NBC) followed up the league title with sectional and district championships.
Under Wilker the Flyers have posted nine 20-win seasons and captured seven league titles.
Vancena, who also plays first base, posted a .351 average and went 3-0 with 10 saves. He had a 2.41 ERA.
Also back are senior Casey Blank (OF/P) and juniors Brad Ackerman (P/OF) and Cody Witt (2B).
Wilker also said he expects juniors Nick Walsh (C ) and Anthony Pratt (1B/ DH) to step up. Sophomore Connor Bowen will step in at shortstop.
“Even though we are going to be young this year, we feel we have some good ball players that are ready for the challenges they will face,” Wilker said. “With Jayce, he’s a quality pitcher, and we will be real competitive and tough to beat.”
Otsego (14-13, 8-6) looks to make a push to the top behind a deep senior class. The Knights are seeking their first league title since 1997.
Welker, who will enter his first season, has six seniors and three junior starters back.
Smoyer finished fourth in the league in batting with a .433 average and had three home runs. Smoyer had a 2.93 ERA before suffering a season-ending broken thumb.
His fellow seniors include Nate Hackworth (SS/P), Hunter Donald (1B/P), Collin Austin (U/P), Drake Johnson (OF/C), and Drew Baus (OF).
Hackworth had 19 RBIs and batted .410, while Johnson drove in 11 and had a .404 average. Donald had 20 RBIs and a .345 average, while Austin batted .352.
The top juniors are Max Miller (2B/P), Deven Vollmar, (INF/P), and Logan Hosley (OF/P).
“Maintaining our focus throughout the season will present us with our biggest challenge to overcome,” Wilker said.
Elmwood (15-10, 9-5) is the last team other than Lake to win a league title. The Royals won the SLL in 2010 under coach Kyle Reiser, who is in his 27th year.
The returning starters are seniors Zach Foster (SS), Zach Irick (P/OF), Austin Hoiles (1B), Caleb Reynolds (P/IN), and junior Jacob Wise (2B/CF). Irick (2.73 ERA) earned All-NBC second team honors. Wise batted .327 and scored 18 runs. Reynolds went 2-1 with a 1.91 ERA.
But those are the only five players with varsity experience.
“They will have to help bring along a young and inexperienced supporting cast for us to be able to compete in an NBC conference loaded with great pitching talent,” Reiser said.
Eastwood (14-11, 10-4) has good leadership, and the seniors will need to be major contributors in order for the Eagles to be successful, according to coach Kevin Leady.
Senior catcher Zach Coffield earned all league first team honors and batted .325. His fellow senior starters include Jordan Luther (1B/P), Jordan Randall (3B/P), and Skyler Dierker (SS).
Junior Jake Schmeltz (3B/OF/P) was named All-NBC first team as he batted .345. Junior Ryan Mang (2B) had a .367 average and drew 33 walks to earn first team league honors. Junior Matt Drown (OF/P) also started last season. Junior Grant Peter (OF/P) will step in as the team's ace, Leady said.
“Our team goal is to compete each and every time we step on the field,” he said. “We want to give ourselves the best opportunity to be as successful as possible. Our goal as a program is to compete for a league title. Eastwood’s last title was in 1989 and we talk about that weekly.”
Genoa (12-13, 5-9) returns a young group that gained valuable experience last year, according to second-year coach Ron Rightnowar.
“The team continues to grow in skill level and knowledge of the game,” he said.
Rightnowar has just one returning senior, Sam Rinehart (P/3B). Junior Casey Gose (P/2B) earned All-NBC first team honors and will lead off.
Junior Logan Scott (OF/1B) is looking to return from an ACL injury. Juniors Alex Hayes (P/SS), Tyler Rozek (OF/P), and Quentin Spiess (P/OF/1B) also are back along with sophomores Nick Wolfe (C/OF), Jake Wojciehowski (P/OF), Cody Pickard (INF/OF), and Luke Rightnowar (P/INF/OF), a transfer from Toledo Christian.
Rightnowar said key injuries will limit depth but his young players are stepping up.
“I am pleased with the players outstanding work ethic thus far,” he said.
Woodmore (13-14, 6-8) should be good defensively, be able to put the ball in play offensively, and use its team speed, according to fifth-year coach Todd Bringman.
Senior Zach Brossia (3B) earned second team all-league honors after batting .333 with 22 runs scored. Senior Coleton Bihn (CF) had 12 RBIs, while senior Danny Munoz (DH/1B) hit .286 with 31 RBIs, five doubles, and 17 walks.
Juniors Jake Matwiejczyk (OF), Erich Gruelich (C), and Evan Ulinski also are back. Bringman has eight returning letter winners.
“I am very pleased with the team chemistry,” Bringman said. “Our biggest question mark at this point is finding out who will comprise our pitching staff and what roles they will play. We expect to be competitive in every game.”
Fostoria (11-18, 5-9) has six starters and two seniors back for first-year coach Dustin Smith.
The seniors are Casey Kitchen (1B/P) and Anthony Dean (C/P/3B). Junior Hunter Abell will play both first and third.
Sophomores Kaleb Bemis (SS/2B/P), Chris Hampton (2B/SS/P), and Robbie Crotty (OF/P) also are expected to contribute.
“Our defense should be the team's best attribute this year. Our entire infield returns,” Smith said.
But he said lack of experience and hitting throughout the lineup are concerns.
Rossford (5-22, 0-14) looks to build upon three returning starters and three young pitchers.
“We were so young last year, but they got a whole year of experience,” second year coach Alan Barnum said.
Junior pitcher Noah Asmus, who will be the ace of staff and play shortstop, batted .393 with 19 stolen bases. Junior Ryan Reed (C ) .308, while senior Tyler Christen (OF) batted 268.
Three sophomore pitchers round out the rotation: John Allen, Marty Linthicum, and Nick Skiba. Freshman Erik Davis (3B/SS) will lead off.
“We will rely heavily on our pitchers,” Barnum said. “We want to win as many games as the program has in the last three years combined, which is 14.”