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Ottawa Hills, with six starters returning, is the clear favorite to repeat at Toledo Area Athletic Conference baseball championship.
The Green Bears were 23-7 overall, 11-1 in the TAAC last season, and reached the Division IV regional semifinals.
Chris Hardman, in his 33rd season as coach, will have to fill the graduation void left by TAAC batting champion Adam Moreau (.526 average).
But the Bears have a five-senior nucleus led by Judah Wollenburg (pitcher/shortstop, 5-1 record, .459 average, 46 runs) and Will Longthorne (catcher, .413, 36 RBIs) that should be able to accomplish that task.
The other returning senior starters are Scott Tucker (pitcher/infielder, 7-1 record, .303 average), Joe Mackey (infielder/pitcher, 7-2 record, .296), and Zack Hauck (outfield), and the sixth returning starter is junior Geoff Beans (infielder/pitcher, .343).
“We return all but one pitching victory from last year, so that would appear to be a strength,” Hardman said. “We can put experience at almost every spot, and we expect our newcomers to produce quickly.
“There will be several formidable teams in the TAAC this year.”
Northwood (17-9, 6-5) could be hot on Green Bears’ tails with its entire team returning, including all nine starters.
Fifth-year coach Dave Russell’s Rangers are led by seniors Nick Russell (shortstop/pitcher, .507, 5-2 record), John Segura (first base/pitcher, .442, 32 RBIs), Justin Rohrs (third base/pitcher, 5-3), Jordan Schell (outfield, .347), Brandon Mahoney (pitcher/outfield, 4-3), Evan Perkins (outfield/catcher), and junior Jacob Davenport (shortstop/pitcher, 3-1).
“Our senior nucleus worked extremely hard in the weight room in the offseason and led our underclassmen well,” coach Russell said. “Complacency is our enemy, and hopefully our district tournament game exit last year [20-2 loss to Ottawa Hills in district final] will provide us the motivation to get us to the next step.
“Our strength will be pitching and defense. If we get good plate production from our bottom half [of lineup], we should be successful.”
Cardinal Stritch (10-12, 7-5) looks to challenge near the top of the TAAC behind eight returning starters.
Second-year Cardinals coach Craig Meinzer will count on seniors Ryan Ballesteros (catcher/first base) and Robbie Bekier (pitcher/first base), who each batted .371, and junior Brooks Gasser (pitcher/outfield, .340). Other returnees include seniors Conner Kelsey (shortstop, .327), Cody Kuch (pitcher/catcher, .317), Eric Richardville (outfield), and Kyle Smrekar (second base/catcher), and junior Adam Buenrostro (second base/shortstop).
“After our first year together, the players realize we can play with every team in the league if we cut down on physical errors,” Meinzer said. “With our top eight players returning, and some good underclassmen, we should be able to compete at or above what we accomplished last year.
“Hitting may be an issue at times, but pitching will be our strong suit this year. We lost some close games last year, but being together this second year we hopefully get over the hump with those types of games.”
Gibsonburg (21-8, 6-5) competed well in its first season in the TAAC in 2012. The Golden Bears upset top-ranked Hopewell-Loudon in a Division IV district final.
But ninth-year coach Kyle Rase graduated six starters from that team, so cracking the top half of the TAAC standings may prove to be a challenge.
The top players returning to help the cause are seniors Tristain Palmerton (second base) and Billy VanDerLaar (outfield), and juniors Andrew Cantrell (first base, .421, 24 RBIs), Gabe Hickman (pitcher, 4-1 record, 3.11 ERA), and Sam Kohler (catcher, .352, 24 RBIs).
“We graduated over 80 percent of our pitching and about two-thirds of our offensive production,” Rase said. “Our team’s success will be determined by how quickly we will fill our open positions.”
Toledo Christian (9-11, 7-5) was in the TAAC mix much of last season, and with seven players returning for first-year coach Mark Rairigh, the Eagles look to compete in the upper half of the standings once again.
Back to help that cause are seniors Brian Freeman (catcher, .417), Josh Winzeler (center field, .281), and Jacob Eversole (second base), juniors Kody Brown (pitcher/first base/outfield) and Andrew Clasey (pitcher/outfield), and sophomores Brett Freeman (third base/pitcher, .369) and Kyle Kempton (shortstop).
“We bring a good mixture of youth and experience to the lineup this season,” Rairigh said. “We will rely on a balanced offense and defense to compete and support our pitching.
“Building a foundation for success will be a key component in allowing us to contend for the league title.”
Danbury (12-12, 5-7) graduated six senior starters and return only two letter winners in senior Zach Kalinoski (pitcher/third base), a fourth-year varsity player, and sophomore Chase Botson (pitcher/shortstop).
Lakers coach Adam Steinbrick looks for help in the rebuilding process from newcomers Mike Stys (catcher/pitcher), Alec Calton (first base/pitcher), and Jack Tyson (second base/pitcher), all sophomores, and from freshman Austin Buchanan (shortstop/pitcher).
“The squad is young but energetic,” Steinbrick said. “We are eager to begin the season. Our strengths are coachability and team camaraderie. We need to learn in a hurry and, most of all, show continuous improvement.”
Emmanuel Christian (1-20, 0-12) struggled in 2012, but hopes to make some strides this season under sixth-year coach Ken Kahsen.
The Warriors are led by seniors Jason Regnier (shortstop, .429), Greg Scheiderer (pitcher/first base, .359), Brad Kisseberth (pitcher/first base), Cody Daniels (third base), Luke Vandress (outfield), and Leland Snyder (outfield), and sophomore Nathan Dick (outfield).
“We have experience in pitching and batting,” Kahsen said, “and if the experience can carry us until some starting freshmen get comfortable, we should be able to compete well for the season.”