Through the openings in his catcher's mask, Jared Kujawa peruses the baseball diamond before him and examines a Bedford team that bears little resemblance to the one that had an epic season a year ago.
Seven new starters, and one more who splits time, are manning the field in front of Kujawa, the Mules' only full-time starter left over from the most successful team in school history.
But before it is suggested that Kujawa and his teammates should dismiss the possibility of returning to the state tournament, it should be known that last year's team at this time wasn't expecting extraordinary success either.
"We knew we'd have a good team, but I don't think anybody expected us to do that good," said Kujawa, a junior. "Then we started to win all of our games, and we realized, hey, we have a shot here."
Stringing together a series of victories, Kujawa says, will also be important to bolster the belief system of this year's club, which includes just three seniors.
Bedford was 3-1 entering last night's double header at Gibraltar Carlson. That one loss was largely a function of a four-error inning last week against an Anthony Wayne team that saw its early 6-0 lead evaporate to 6-4 before adding another run and winning 7-4.
At one point last year, Bedford (38-3 overall) won 19 straight games. Its first-ever berth in the state tournament ended in a semifinal loss to eventual state champion Warren De La Salle, in six innings, 11-1.
Playing in their final high school game were the team's top two pitchers and top three batters.
However, many of this year's returners, although not previous starters, played significant innings, and the remaining new guys pieced together a 26-8 mark at the junior varsity level.
Mules Coach Craig Trychel said he expects his team to be "very competitive" in the Southeastern Conference, although he's not yet ready to say they are the equal of league dominators Ann Arbor Pioneer and two-time defending state runner-up Saline.
"Potentially this could be a great team," said Trychel, now in his 14th season. "It's just a matter of doing the things that [last year's] team did."
A trio nearly interchangeable in talent consisting of ace Dan Przeniczny, Bobby Schoch, and lefthander Trent Szkutnik form a rotation that should be strong despite the losses of No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers Mitch Hooven (12-1 overall) and Shane Shroyer.
Przeniczny, who started intermittently at shortstop and recorded a 5-2 mark as a relief pitcher, is also playing shortstop and hitting second.
Schoch, who will bat third, does not possess overpowering stuff on the mound but is able to induce groundball outs. Szkutnik played mostly on JV last year but was 5-0 pitching nonconference games for the varsity.
He already has thrown a no-hitter this season.
"I'm really happy with our progress so far," Trychel said. "This group can do a lot. They can be a great team if they keep improving every week."
Jake Glenn, a senior and another new face on varsity, will be the closer on a staff blessed by a catcher whom Trychel quickly says is the team's best player. Kujawa, coming off of a season in which he batted .385 with 40 RBI, is being pursued by several Division I college programs. A standout quarterback for Bedford's football team, Kujawa says baseball is the more realistic option for his future. He'll bat leadoff and ideally will be on base when senior rightfielder Dave Bigby arrives to the plate three batters later.
"I think if we play strong defense we can win a lot of games," Kujawa said. "We definitely have the pitching, and if we make plays behind our pitching, we should be all right."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com,