The usual suspects all figure to be in the chase for City League baseball playoff berths again this season, with one playoff regular favored by most league coaches to snap a 19-year title drought with its highly regarded pitching prowess.
That favorite is Central Catholic, which won the CL's regular-season title last year with a 10-1 mark before losing to eventual winner St. John's Jesuit in the city championship playoff semifinals.
Ohio's high school baseball season opens today.
Central, 15-12 overall last year, last won a City title in 1986 when the Irish won the Red Division title in the league's old two-division format, then beat St. Francis de Sales 8-5 in the CL championship game.
The drought is not the favorite subject of 19th-year Irish coach Jeff Mielcarek, who took the varsity post in 1987 and 10 times has had Central in the CL playoffs since the league went to the four-team postseason format in 1991. The Irish also have advanced to the district tournament several times under Mielcarek, twice reaching the regional finals (1989-90).
With the potentially dominant pitching of veteran senior starters Brad Hays, Nick Whitaker and Matt Tober - all of whom have been clocked at or above 84 mph - plus another solid senior pitcher in Brandon Michalak, Central is the choice of most CL coaches to win the title.
Mielcarek is quick to caution that the Irish must improve greatly on offense from the prior two seasons to make full use of the pitching strength.
City League coaches see perennial league and state power Start (26-5, 9-2 last season), as the next-best bet to challenge for the title, followed by St. John's (25-4, 9-2), St. Francis (14-9, 8-3), Whitmer (19-6, 9-2) and Clay (18-11, 5-6).
Waite (12-14, 5-6), which won the 2002 CL title and was runner-up in 2003, is also expected to be in the playoff hunt, as is Bowsher (12-14, 4-7).
St. John's beat Start in both the City League and district championship games last season, before losing to Cleveland St. Ignatius in the Division I regional final, the Titans' deepest tournament run ever.
But coach Ed Mouch, who also guided St. John's to CL crowns in 2000 and 2001, graduated seven seniors from his lineup, five of whom received first-team All-City honors. The losses included hard-throwing ace pitcher Connor Graham, Kevin Leininger (P-2B) and Mickey Cassidy (P-SS).
Mouch returns senior starters Blake Haudan and Jay Wheeler, who were also first-team All-City. Senior Andrew Vollmar is the most experienced pitcher back, with 10 varsity innings.
Ohio Hall-of-Fame coach Rich Arbinger opens his 30th season at Start with a 661-182 record. That mark includes eight CL, 14 district, six regional and two state championships.
This resume makes it improbable that other league coaches ever dismiss the Spartans' chances. This year is no exception.
Start returns two first-team All-City players in seniors Aaron Stewart (P-1B) and Jacob Koechley (CF), second-team picks Kevin Neilly (OF) and Mike Nyitrai (C-P), plus talented sophomore Jason Molton (3B). Stewart was 6-0 pitching with a 1.92 ERA, while Neilly (.491) and Keochley (.466) led the Spartan batting attack.
St. Francis lost to Central in its final league game last year, preventing a five-way tie for first place at 9-2 and narrowly denying the Knights a playoff berth after they won the CL title in 2003.
Veteran coach Don Kober, also a member of the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, begins his 32nd season with a 615-240 record. He has won nine CL championships in 16 title-game appearances and his teams have also made two trips to the state semifinals.
St. Francis returns three senior infield starters in Rob Swick (1B), Jake Peters (2B) and Matt Bell (SS). Junior Aaron Dudley (C) was a second-team all-league outfielder in 2004. Senior Joe Perzynski likely will lead the pitching staff.
Whitmer, which lost to Start in the CL playoff semifinals, returns senior experience up the middle with first-team All-City shortstop J.J. Fought (.388), second-team league pick Alex Duhaime (.345), pitcher Kyle Andrews (6-2, 1.90 ERA) and center fielder Jon Floering. Sophomore Steve Sumner (1B, .339) also returns for coach Gary O'Connor.
Veteran Clay coach Karl Knierim is counting five returning starters. Senior Rob Hufford (1B, .356) was a second-team CL pick, and the Eagles also will return seniors Nick Zenk (P-OF, .330), Brad Coy (C-OF, .310) and Brad Timofeev (2B), and junior Derek Spencer (SS, .330).
The next six teams in the CL all have coaches who are either in the their first or second season at the their respective schools.
Second-year Waite coach Ken Rossler will count on six returnees. That group includes seniors Josh Hornyak (1B), Ryan Evans (P-2B) and Ryan Mitchell (P-3B, 5-3, 2.80 ERA), plus juniors Howie Lacourse (C), Van Burden (OF) and Noah Bauer (utility). Hornyak (.320) was a second-team CL choice in 2004.
First-year Bowsher coach Craig Meinzer - who was an assistant for several seasons under Mouch at St. John's, and whose son plays in the Central Catholic program - has two other CL connections. His wife works at St. Francis and he is a graduate of Whitmer.
But his first priority this spring will be getting Bowsher back into the CL playoffs for the first time since 1998.
Meinzer inherited seven returning senior starters. Back are Mickey Jewell (P-SS), Jason Chitwood (OF), Aaron Polte (1B-C), Arthur Allen (2B), Kevin Williams (P-OF), Mike Haslett (3B-P) and Chad Lange, a third-year catcher. Jewell (.421) was a second-team CL selection.
First-year Rogers coach Ken Rosplohowski gets back into the coaching box for the first time since 1995 and '96 when he coached at Scott. His personnel problem with the Rams isn't as severe as it was with the Bulldogs, but he has just two returning starters in senior Jimmy Jagodzinski (SS-P) and junior Samer Ahmad (1B).
Senior newcomer Patrick Lewis (P-SS) and junior David Kraft (CF-3B), a JV player last season, should help Rogers (8-18, 4-7).
First-year Woodward coach David Hurley, a construction worker who coached summer youth teams in Toledo the last eight years, inherits a team that went 3-17 (1-10 CL) with just 13 players in the program last year.
The Bears have 40 players this season, enough to field a junior varsity squad. The downside is having just one senior, Mark Pakulski (P-SS), and two juniors.
Hurley is counting on four other varsity returnees - junior Tom Salone (1B-P), and sophomores John Smith (1B-C), Greg Schrecongost (IF-OF) and Delfino Moya (utility).
Like they have been for most of the last 30 years, numbers are still a problem at Scott (1-17, 0-11). Second-year skipper Brian Wagner has just 12 players.
Top returness include senior Lindsay Mann (P-C) and juniors Antwan Ramsey (SS-P) and Antwan Moore (3B).
At Libbey (6-12, 3-8), Jeremy Mohler takes over the coaching post from Terry Jackson, who moved the Cowboys in a positive direction last season.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.