Entering this season, Maumee baseball coach Cam Coutcher had the majority of his team back.
The trouble was, the Panthers had ended last year just a game away from last place in the Northern Lakes League at 4-10 (12-17 overall), and had graduated pitching ace Mike Mason, who is now at Marshall University.
Last year s light-hitting group lost 1-0 to Lima Shawnee in the Division II district semifinals despite a gem by Mason, who ended his senior year 5-2 with a 0.33 ERA and 84 strikeouts in just 42 innings.
But Coutcher was still counting on big things from his current senior group, which had gone 18-2 in freshman competition in 2006. So far this season, he s gotten what he had expected.
After an 11-3 victory Tuesday at Northview,Maumee is 20-3 overall, 7-2 in league play and still in contention for an NLL title.
We have a lot more team unity, Coutcher said, comparing this season to 2008. Our seniors really set a good environment to play in and to have fun. But they re serious and have great leadership. They re winners. They want to do what they re coached to do.
We have six three-year starters, so we kind of built up to this. I thought we were going to be better last year, but it didn t work out. They re coming into their own now.
The Panthers were scheduled to play at rival Perrysburg last night, and are gearing up for a challenging Division II sectional final test against Bryan (19-2) tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Defiance.
Whatever the Panthers could not accomplish last season, they are now reaping the benefits of experience.
A lot of it is the fundamentals, Coutcher (100-110 career record in eight seasons) said of the turnaround. They really believe in coming to practice every day and working hard. That translates out onto the field in games.
Leading the way have been senior starters Ryan Williams (pitcher/utility), Nick Gerschultz (pitcher/DH), Corey Kolbow (first base/pitcher), Bobby Chapman (catcher), Brian Rahman (outfield/pitcher) and Joe Brady(second base/shortstop).
Also key has been the play of returning junior starters Cal Reese (shortstop/pitcher) and Damon Contat (outfield), and the emergence of sophomore Connor Stanford (outfield) and freshman Evan Karchner (outfield/catcher/pitcher).
Williams, Kolbow, Chapman, Rahman and Contat are all third-year starters.
The seniors have been through the tough times and we just wanted to work hard and make improvements, said Williams, who is hitting .479 (34 for 71) with 32 RBIs, 25 runs scored and 20 stolen bases.
Everyone knows, with Mike Mason, we had a great pitching staff last season. It was a real disappointment that our offense didn t come through and give our pitchers some support.
We worked hard in the offseason. We wanted to turn this program around and be successful again like [Maumee had been] in the past.
The Panthers last NLL title was shared with Bowling Green in 2004, and former coach Dave DuGai guided Maumee to a surprise run to the Division I state final in 2001.
Everyone s getting after it in practice and in the weight room, said Kolbow, who is hitting .314 (22 for 70) with 16 RBIs and 25 runs. It s been a good atmosphere, and we re all getting along better than what we did last year.
The pitchers are throwing a lot more strikes, so there s less walks. That makes it easier on our defense. And, we re coming through in the clutch when we re up to bat.
The right-handed Gerschultz, who relies more on craftiness than velocity, has succeeded Mason as the staff ace. He has a 7-1 record with 26 strikeouts and a 2.00 ERA through 42 innings
Mike left some big shoes to fill, but I ve just learned to stay inside myself, try to throw strikes, and keep the ball low, Gerschultz said. I have a good defense behind me and I trust in them.
This year we ve really stepped up to the plate and hit. We ve stressed fundamentals all season, and took it game by game without really worrying about other teams. We knew we can beat anybody and we just have to believe in ourselves.
Gerschultz is also hitting .394 (26 for 66) with 18 RBIs and 18 runs.
It just seems like the whole team, from top to bottom, does well with situational hitting, Gerschultz said, and we just get the job done. We ve been getting the clutch hits when we need them.
In limited at bats, Contat leads the team in hitting at .550 (11 for 20) with two home runs, 13 RBI and 11 runs. Stanford is at .429 (33 for 77) with 19 RBI and 28 runs, Reese is hitting .345 (20 for 58), Chapman .321 (17 for 53), Brady .297 and Rahman .293.
The Panthers team batting average is .355.
On the hill, Reese is 4-2 with two saves, 27 strikeouts and a 2.18 ERA over 351/3 innings, and Kolbow is 3-0 with 20 strikeouts and a 3.21 ERA in 281/3 innings.
Any team feeds off of success, said Coutcher. If a guy in front of you gets a base hit, you re more likely to get a hit following him. Right now we re playing really good baseball and we re feeding off the success we ve had.
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