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Clay went deeper into the 2012 state baseball tournament than any other Three Rivers Athletic Conference team, and St. John’s Jesuit won the conference playoff championship.
Those accomplishments, plus the returning talent for each team, were enough to convince TRAC coaches to vote the Eagles and St. John’s to place first and second, respectively, in a preseason poll.
Clay (15-16 overall, 8-5 TRAC), which advanced to the Division regional semifinals before losing 5-2 to Ashland, is led on the mound by senior ace right-hander Jordan Grosjean (5-3 record, 3.05 ERA) and at the plate by senior Lucas Robson (outfielder/pitcher, .365 batting average, 15 RBIs).
Other returnees include senior Ty McAtee (catcher) and juniors Bryce Castilleja (third base/pitcher, .297) and Matt York (pitcher/DH/utility).
Newcomers expected to contribute include juniors Kyle Row (utility), Josh Pennington (pitcher/utility), and Jay Smith (outfielder/catcher), and sophomore Ryan Fournier (infielder/pitcher).
“We will have a strong pitching staff, and we will be returning five starters from last season that will all be in the No. 1 through 6 spots in our hitting lineup,” fourth-year coach Garry Isbell said. “This year’s team has more team speed and defensive versatility than last season’s team.”
St. John’s (21-7, 8-2 TRAC) begins the season under former longtime Cardinal Stritch coach Greg Christian, who came to the Titans as a varsity assistant last year. He steps into the head coaching post as St. John’s attempts to defend its conference title.
The Titans were hit hard by graduation with the loss of four-year starters Jesse Adams (9-1 pitching, .387 average) and Nate Pearson (TRAC batting champion at .487), who have gone on to Boston College and the University of Toledo, respectively. Pitcher/outfielder Joe Robie (3-2, .384) also graduated, and current senior Liam Allen (.326) will miss his final season after undergoing surgery to repair a football injury.
The Titans hope to reload around returning senior starters Corey Tipton (catcher) and Jimmy Scott (shortstop/pitcher, 1-0, .033 ERA), along with junior Nolan Silberhorn (pitcher/first baseman).
Joining them will be juniors Jacek Czerwinski (pitcher/outfielder) and Collin Korte (pitcher/outfielder), and sophomores T.J. Lake (outfield) and Devon Garcia (infield).
“We will need to utilize the small-ball game and manufacture runs,” Christian said. “We will lean on our starting pitching to keep scores close. The pitching looks like our biggest strength with Nolan, Jacek, Collin, and Jimmy."
At Central Catholic (15-14. 6-4), Jeff Mielcarek, the TRAC’s dean of coaches, begins his 27th season confident in senior right-hander Jake Rudnicki, but also wondering if his Irish can find pitching depth, and if his lineup can consistently generate enough offense.
Rudnicki, who will pitch at Ohio University next year, was 5-3 with 87 strikeouts and a 1.18 ERA in 53 1/3 innings in 2012. Also back are senior outfielders Joe Solomon (.301, 21 stolen bases) and Mitch Cochell, and juniors Chad Kuebler (outfielder/pitcher), Kam Weber (catcher), and Derich Weiland (third baseman/pitcher)
“Other than Jake, we have lost nearly all of our other innings pitched from last season,” Mielcarek said, “so pitching is a big question mark as we head into the season, along with our offensive production.
“With the entire outfield back, as well as a catcher and a couple of infielders, the defense looks to be a strength.”
Findlay (12-13, 4-6) looks to improve on its 2012 TRAC finish, and eighth-year coach Jeff Stutzman will count heavily on Notre Dame-bound senior pitcher Jimmy Orwick (3-4, 2.90 ERA, .354 average), who also plays outfield or first base when off the hill. Another key cog will be Nolan Atwood (pitcher/first base/outfield, .308, 2-4 pitching).
Other returnees expected to contribute include Tim Koch (third base), Wyatt Krupp (center fielder), and Dietrich Hinesman (1B/DH).
“We will compete for the league title,” Stutzman said.
St. Francis de Sales (19-9, 7-3) wasn’t far off having a big season in 2012, and seventh-year Knights coach Tim Gerken hopes his seven returning starters will bring enough production to push the team over the top.
Back are twin brothers Eric Zmuda (shortstop, .340) and Matt Zmuda (first base/pitcher, .384), Max Lyon (outfield/pitcher, .349), Miccoy Drzewiecki (third base, .321), Michael Wagner (catcher, .350), Joey White (outfield, .370), and Cody Lewis (outfield).
The Zmuda twins will play at Dension, and Drzewiecki will play at Adrian after graduation.
The Knights look to have plenty of plate potential, so finding pitching depth will be the key to their success.
Whitmer (14-14, 5-5) entered the inaugural TRAC baseball season in 2012 coming off a championship in its final year in the City League. But 14th-year coach Gary O’Connor’s Panthers could not carry over the momentum.
They will take another run at it this year led by Jack Linch (catcher/third base, .426), Luke Hickey (shortstop/pitcher, .314, 1-3 pitching, 3.09 ERA), Blake Melchert (pitcher, 4-4, 3.41 ERA), and Kyle Craig (outfield, .470), who ranked third in the TRAC batting.
Also back is Rex Rutherford (third base/outfield/pitcher, .317), and some top newcomers include Tylor Schneider (outfield/pitcher), Danny Tober (catcher/outfield), Nick Kozak (pitcher), Anthony Okdie (infield), and Blake Merrill (catcher/first base).
“Our strengths this year should be the depth of our pitching, and our defense,” O’Connor said. “With several returning starters in key positions, those should be the parts that lead us. Our seniors have provided much needed leadership.”
Fremont Ross (18-11, 4-6) reached the finals of the TRAC tournament last year before falling to champion St. John’s, and it will rely heavily on returning starters Tyler Wolf (pitcher/shortstop, .400, 7-2 pitching, 2.59 ERA), Michael Egbert (outfield, .393), and Brandon Weiker (third base, .347), who should get help from six other returning letter winners.
Providing depth are Cole Bowers (second base), Kole Amor (catcher), and Michael Hufford (outfield).
“We have a strong nucleus of returning starters, along with a deeper pitching staff than we’ve had in years,” sixth-year coach Mark King said. “We believe that if we play to our potential, we can compete.”
Lima Senior (0-21, 0-10) and third-year coach Wesley Schroeder look to make strides with seven varsity returnees. Back are senior Aaron Kellum (catcher/pitcher), juniors Brady Allen (shortstop/pitcher), Justice Graham (outfield/pitcher), Aaron Reed (first base/catcher), and Mike Holobaugh (outfield), and sophomores Khiry Williams (first base) and Taylor Mericle (outfield).