On the heels of an otherwise solid 2010 baseball season that ended in disappointing fashion, fourth-year St. John's Jesuit baseball coach D.J. Eckhart might have been judged a bit ambitious when he spoke of his overhauled squad back in late March.
"I think we could shock some people," Eckhart predicted with genuine optimism in his tone.
Nearly two months later, St. John's, which had graduated six experienced starters from a 24-4 team, plus lost its top expected returnee via the transfer route, has made good on its coach's preseason forecast.
After running the table on the CL schedule for the second straight year, St. John's (21-4 overall) has earned a regional semifinal matchup against fifth-ranked Perrysburg (21-3) Thursday at 4 p.m. at Bowling Green State University.
"We're getting some good players coming in," Eckhart said of his 18-player roster that includes just three seniors. "We knew we had some younger but talented kids, and how successful we were was going to be a matter of how well those young kids were going to be able to step in and produce."
The Titans, who clinched the top seed for the upcoming City League playoffs with a 10-0 league record, beat Whitmer 7-3 at Skeldon Stadium to win the second Division I district championship in school history.
"Especially with the schedule we had, I didn't think we'd be 21-4 right now," Eckhart said. "So, we've already done some awesome things. We still have the regional to play and the City League playoffs ahead of us.
"About halfway through the season we went from being the hunters right back to being the hunted like we were last year."
The shock element arises when considering the personnel St. John's had lost, and how the Titans have filled that void.
For starters, first-team All-City pitchers Zach Leffler and Daniel McKinney were gone. Leffler graduated and McKinney, now a junior who has committed to the University of Michigan, transferred to Bowling Green.
A third starting pitcher from 2010, Jacob Ray, also won the CL batting triple crown (.513 average, 6 home runs, 37 RBIs) before graduating.
The regular lineup this season includes just two seniors -- outfielder Matt Vollmar, who started most of last season, and third baseman Ben Nevers. The only other senior is pitcher Graham Wood.
"Losing in the first round last year was definitely something we were thinking about this year," Vollmar said. "That's really what motivated our team to kind of refuse to lose this year. We didn't want to go down early, and we don't want to go down now."
The Titans rebuilt around its two most experienced players -- junior lefthanded pitcher/center fielder Jesse Adams, and junior first baseman Nate Pearson -- who are each third-year starters.
When it comes to filling voids, no Titan has supplied more production than Adams.
Having pitched just eight varsity innings last season in spot duty, Adams has thrived as the No. 1 starter. He has allowed just 20 hits and 14 runs (eight earned) while striking out 73 batters in 46⅓ innings, and posted a 10-0 record (1.21 ERA).
"I've always been a side pitcher," Adams said. "It's never been my primary position. But I knew that I needed to step up as a leader, especially as a pitcher. I'm just glad I've been able to come through."
As St. John's leadoff hitter, Adams is hitting .514 (36-for-70) with four home runs, 43 runs scored, 25 RBIs and 23 walks.
"A lot of other teams probably didn't think we would be able to compete in the City or the district, but I think we've been able to prove them wrong," Adams said. "We're motivated to win. We want to play baseball at the best level we can possibly play, and I think we're starting to do that and figure it out as a team."
Pearson, who exploded onto the City League scene as a freshman with a league-best seven homers in 2009, has seen fewer and fewer pitchers the last two season, often being intentionally walked.
When Pearson -- a two-way football lineman and son of Titans football coach Doug Pearson -- does get a chance to hit, it's usually a productive swing. He is hitting .458 (33-for-72) with two homers and 37 RBIs with 15 walks.
"The key this year has been that our younger guys have stepped up and filled the holes left by the guys who graduated," Pearson said. "We have good chemistry, and we've got young guys who want to win. That's what's made us successful so far."
Vollmar is hitting .492 (29-for-51) with 26 RBIs.
Joining the three varsity veterans are junior first-year starters Joe Robie (outfielder/pitcher) and Dylan Willits (second base), and sophomore newcomers Jimmy Scott (shortstop), Corey Tipton (catcher) and Liam Allen (outfielder/second base).
Robie had three hits in the district final and is hitting .373. Scott (.344) pounded a grand slam in the district semifinals, Tipton is hitting .381 and has emerged as a defensive weapon with his throwing arm, and Allen is hitting .327.
Allen is the eldest son of Lloyd Allen, a California native who was a first-round draft pick (12th overall selection) of the California Angels in 1968. The right-handed relief pitcher debuted in the major leagues as a 19-year-old in 1969, and spent seven big-league seasons with the Angels, Rangers, and White Sox.
Junior outfielder/pitcher Cam Brickman has joined the starting lineup recently, playing left field for Vollmar, who has been limited to designated hitter duty after a hamstring pull.
St. John's potential started becoming reality back on April 15 when the Titans outlasted preseason City League favorite Clay 10-9.
After handing visiting Start its first CL loss (3-0) on May 2, the Titans' next test was passed on the weekend of May 7-8.
Hosting the Ohio Jesuit tournament, St. John's handed state power Walsh Jesuit (currently ranked No. 2 in Division II) its first loss in a 17-11 slugfest. The Titans also knocked off perennial power Cleveland St. Ignatius 11-7, but lost to Cincinnati St. Xavier (No. 3 in D-I) 8-6.
"Our kids are pretty fearless and pretty gritty," Eckhart said. "I don't know if it was our youth or what, but we walked into that [Jesuit] tournament thinking that these are pretty good teams, but so are we, so let's see how we match up."
The Titans beat Bowsher 8-1 in a sectional final, and routed Springfield 11-1 in a district semifinal. This tourney run is a far cry from last season's shocking tourney meltdown, which saw St. John's lose its opening game 8-6 to Bowsher after blowing a lead with two outs in the seventh inning.
Another emotional blow was the Titans' subsequent 8-1 loss to Central Catholic in the 2010 City championship game.
Such abrupt ends to the season were foreign to Eckhart as a high school player in his days at Start.
A four-year starting catcher for the Spartans from 1992-95, Eckhart played on teams that reached the state semifinals three straight years (1993-95), including a 31-0 state-championship season his junior year, plus won City championships in 1994 and '95.
He later turned in a solid college career at Miami (Ohio).
Eckhart's trademark as a player is something he brings to his players now -- a fiery competitiveness.
"He's a great coach and he comes fired up every game," Pearson said. "He puts a little pep in our step, because we know we have to be as fired up as he is."
"He has a fiery personality and it definitely rubs off on the team as the game goes on," Adams said.
"He definitely rubs off on us," Vollmar said. "Everybody gives it their all because we're all fired up to play."
Eckhart likes his team's confidence level.
"Our kids think they're pretty good right now," Eckhart said. "I absolutely want them to think they're better than they are. But we play the game the right way."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461.