Bolstered by a veteran corps of returning seniors, the Start Spartans find themselves in a familiar position roughly midway through the 2005 high school baseball season.
Heading into today's 5 p.m. City League showdown with preseason league favorite Central Catholic at Bowman Park, 30th-year coach Rich Arbinger's Spartans are 12-0 overall and 5-0 in CL play.
And, Arbinger's veteran players are well aware that it takes this type of performance just to live up to the legacy of their predecessors, the players who built the Start baseball tradition.
This legacy includes 11 City League, 15 district, six regional and two state championships (in 1994 and 2000), all since 1965. Arbinger's career mark stands at 673-182 (.787).
Trying to earn a place in Start baseball history, this year's 16-player varsity roster is dotted with 11 seniors, five of whom are returning starters.
Those incumbents include Aaron Stewart (P-IF), Jacob Koechley (CF), Kevin Neilly (RF), Mike Nyitrai (C) and Tom DeClercq (1B).
"There's just so much tradition around here," DeClercq said. "Everybody strives to be the best and you've got to compete for your spot every day. One bad day and you're out.
"We were definitely looking forward to this season. We've got a lot of seniors back, and we're a real tight team. We've got good karma with each other, so it should be a fun year."
According to DeClercq, Start's sustained baseball success is no real secret.
"We do a lot of extra work," he said. "A lot of people stay after practice for hitting and taking ground balls and going over situations with coaches."
Another returning starter is sophomore Jason Moulton (3B-P), and three other seniors have made significant contributions so far this season - Nick Ervin (OF), Justin Gillespie (SS-P) and Andrew Dailey (LF). The top newcomer is starting freshman second baseman Ricardo Lizcano, who ranked second on the team in hitting at .479 through 11 games.
Neilly tops the hit list with 18 in 33 at-bats for a team-high .545 clip, and the red-hot Start lineup has been balanced at the plate with Koechley (.441), DeClercq (.438), Stewart (.435), Nyitrai (.414), Moulton (.375) and Ervin (.352) all above .350.
"I'd say it's more intimidating than having pressure on your shoulders," Koechley said of living up to the tradition. "I don't know if this team has the capability of winning a state championship, but we're going to try our best."
Start players don't have to look far for a reminder of the Spartan legacy. The school's numerous titles are listed on the outfield wall near the Bowman Park scoreboard in right-center field.
"It's intimidating to go out there and see those [championship] banners," Koechley said. "You look out there and expect that you have to put one up to be a good team."
Stewart, the ace of the pitching staff, is 4-0 with 34 strikeouts and a 1.11 earned-run average over 251/3 innings. Moulton is 3-0 with 29 strikeouts and a 1.24 ERA in 17 frames.
Aside from just living up to the tradition in general, the Spartans draw motivation from two key losses late last season against St. John's Jesuit - 14-4 in the CL playoff championship, and 8-3 in the Division I district title game.
Start had won 10 of the prior 13 district crowns, including six straight (1993-98). The Spartans were state runners-up in 1987 and 1997, and also advanced to state in 1993 and '95.
Gillespie, who has yet to allow a run in 72/3 innings pitched, has a simple explanation for the team's success.
"You just gotta play as a team, work hard and drive toward your destination," he said. "We want to prove that we can do it. Hit the ball, play defense, do it all.
"Our hitting's been good and our defense isn't too bad. That's pretty much it."
Did the absence of a district title last season lead CL foes to overlook this year's Start squad?
"No," Gillespie said. "They've got us in the back of their minds. There's no way you can forget the Spartans."
"It's always a sore subject when you don't finish your goals," DeClercq said of 2004. "I think it really helped us out in getting us going this year. It was inspiration. We have a point to prove."
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