The race for the first Three Rivers Athletic Conference baseball title will begin April 16 with the first round of conference games, and St. John's Jesuit appears to be the team to beat.
In a preseason coaches poll, the Titans -- who were 22-6 overall, 10-0 in City League play, and reached the Division I regional semifinals last season -- received four first-place votes and 40 total voting points to edge out Clay for the role as favorite.
The Eagles (17-11, 8-2 CL) picked up three first-place votes and 38 points for second place, and St. Francis de Sales (18-7, 6-3 CL) received 28 points for third place.
All three teams made the move from the City League to the TRAC this school year, along with Whitmer (18-11, 8-2), which won the CL playoffs last year, and Central Catholic (10-13, 5-5). They join Findlay, Fremont Ross, and Lima Senior from the former Greater Buckeye Conference in the new TRAC.
The TRAC will utilize a divisional alignment for conference games and then a championship playoff which will involve all eight teams near season's end. During the regular season, Central, St. Francis, St. John's, and Whitmer will be in one division and will play each other twice each in a home-and-home format, while Clay, Findlay, Fremont Ross and Lima Senior will form the other division and play each other twice.
Teams from opposite divisions will play only once for a total of 10 conference games, and the teams will be seeded according to their records for the three-round, single-elimination conference playoff.
St. John's has plenty of familiar faces in its lineup, and one new one at the helm in former longtime Southview coach Mike O'Reilly, who succeeds D.J. Eckhart as the Titans' skipper.
The Titans return seven regular starters, one player who started before being forced out by an injury, plus four other players with varsity experience.
"We'll have to hit," O'Reilly said. "I think we're playing good defense right now, and we're hoping our pitchers throw strikes. If we do that we have a chance to win."
Heading the returnees are two seniors who are fourth-year starters -- 2011 City League player-of-the-year Jesse Adams, a pitcher-center fielder, and All-City first-teamer Nate Pearson, first base-designated hitter.
Adams was 10-0 with an 0.99 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 56⅓ innings last year and won the City League batting title with a .507 average with four home runs, 25 RBIs, 43 runs scored, and 21 stolen bases. He is set to play at Boston College next year.
Pearson ranked fifth in the CL in batting (.420), and had two homers and a team-high 37 RBIs in 2011. He has signed to play at the University of Toledo.
"Jesse's a very talented individual who has a lot of tools that will help him and help the team," O'Reilly said. "Nate's a very good leader for us and a very good hitter. We expect them to lead us, on and off the field offensively, and Jesse on the mound as well."
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Joining them as returning starters are seniors Liam Allen (LF-CF), Dylan Willits (2B), Joe Robie (P-RF), and juniors Corey Tipton (C) and Jimmy Scott (SS). Other expected to contribute include seniors Cam Brickman (P-utility) and Matt Henderson (P), junior Ben Brossia (1B), and sophomore Nolan Silberhorn (P-1B).
Central Catholic may have been picked to finish sixth, but perhaps nowhere else is there more buzz than at its school's new off-campus baseball facility, the $2 million-plus Mercy Field at the Catholic Youth Organization athletic complex on Holland-Sylvania Road.
"It's exciting obviously with the new stadium, and the kids are awfully excited, which is very neat," said 26th-year Irish coach Jeff Mielcarek. "I don't know the immediate return on the field [in terms of winning], but it's going to be great for northwest Ohio, not just Central Catholic."
Mercy Field is lighted to enable night games, has field turf with a state-of-the-art drainage system that will greatly reduce rainouts, plus a press box, permanent bleacher seating for 425 spectators, a locker room, an indoor hitting facility, and a study room equipped with internet access for players to do their homework.
"It changes the whole mind-set of preparation for practice," said Mielcarek, 376-268 career. "We no longer worry about a sprinkle or a shower or even a hard rain. If it's not raining at the time of a game or a practice we can use the field. That's something we've never come close to experiencing before.
"Every day we get there, and every day I walk in, it's still hard to believe that it's reality. But it is. It's something special that we're awfully proud of."
On the field, the Irish will rely on their two returning senior starters -- Derek Hafner (SS-P) and Evan McNair (P). McNair was 3-5 with a 3.22 ERA. Hafner was 3-2 with a 4.11 ERA.
Expected to provide lineup support are seniors Tyler Wagner (C) and Nick LaPorta (2B), and talented junior Jake Rudnicki (P-3B) will help anchor the mound corps along with McNair.
Clay, with a young starting lineup, will count heavily on its veteran pitching staff, led by a trio of experienced starters -- senior left-handers Ross Achter and Brett Jordan, and junior right-hander Jordan Grosjean.
"Pitching is going to be big-time for us," third-year Eagles coach Garry Isbell said. "It's always the most valuable ingredient within the success of a team.
"Pitching is something we have this year, and it's just a matter of our horses going out and taking care of business."
Adding mound support are junior Lucas Robson (OF-P) and sophomore Bryce Castilleja (3B-P). Robson was the team's top hitter last year at .391 with two homers and 19 RBIs, en route to All-City and all-district first-team honors. Junior catcher Ty McAtee started roughly half of Clay's games last season.
St. Francis, under sixth-year coach Tim Gerken, has four returning starters to lead his Knights, whom he labels as "the most athletic and versatile group" he's had.
Leading the way will be junior twin brothers Eric Zmuda (SS), who was third in the City League in batting last year at .435, and Matt Zmuda (P-1B), who was 9-0 with a 1.65 ERA in 2011.
The other top returnees are senior Tad Sobieszczanski (CF, .329 average) and junior Mike Wagner (C). Also bringing varsity experience are seniors Jimmy O'Shea (P-utility) and Anthony Maraldo (OF).
"We're going to be as good as our pitching," Gerken said. "We don't have that true D-I, No. 1 type guy, but we've got a lot of good ones. We've also got good team speed, and this is probably the hardest working team we've had in my six years. The keys for us will be pitching it and picking it up, because we're pretty good offensively one through nine."
Whitmer is coming off a championship in its final season in the City League. Coach Gary O'Connor, entering his 12th season, has four returning starters in seniors Jake Lawniczak (3B) and Tyler LaFountain (OF), and juniors Jack Linch (C) and Luke Hickey (SS). Blake Melchert will be the No. 1 pitcher, and fellow junior Kyle Craig is another promising addition.
"Our big thing is to play better defense than we did last year," O'Connor said. "Our overall pitching should be stronger, and if we do both of those things, we should be in every game because I like the way our hitters swing the bats."
Findlay finished 17-8 overall and 7-3 good for third place in the Greater Buckeye Conference last year. The Trojans of seventh-year coach Jeff Stutzman have three returning starters in seniors Austin Hook (3B-P) and Jordan Widman (OF), and junior Jimmy Orwick (P-1B-OF). Junior letter winners Austin Niswander (SS) and Wyatt Krupp (CF), will also contribute, as will varsity newcomers Dietrich Hinesman (1B), a junior, and Nolan Rodman (C-OF), a sophomore.
"If Orwick and Hook continue to improve, and a couple of the younger pitchers without experience step up and come through, we should be right in the thick of things," Stutzman said of competing for a TRAC title.
Fremont Ross (13-12) has a large group of varsity returnees, and the Little Giants expect to improve on that 2011 finish behind seniors Jordan Garcia (C ), Clay Barron (RF), Trent Stout (3B), T.J. Harkness (2B-P), and Bryce McConnell (1B), and juniors Michael Egbert (CF), Tyler Wolf (SS-P), and Spencer Conklin (LF). Harkness was a All-Ohio second-team selection. Garcia, Stout, and Wolf all earned all-district.
"We're bringing eight kids back and we do have some returning talent with experience," said fifth-year coach Mark King. "But we're inexperienced on the mound with only two pitchers who have thrown at the varsity level. Our biggest concerns in staying in contention are staying strong defensively and throwing strikes, and I believe we can hit."
Lima Senior (7-12) faces an uphill battle this season under first-year coach Wes Schroeder, who has only one returning starter in junior Aaron Kellum (C-P), plus two others with experience in senior Desmond Daniel (CF) and sophomore Brady Allen (SS).
"It's definitely a building situation," Schroeder said. "We're playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores, and we're doing what we can to try to compete."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade