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Before this past baseball season began, the Perrysburg baseball team faced a difficult test.
The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish fifth in the Northern Lakes League, and that prediction was a direct challenge to a program that is a perennial title contender.
"Even though we were picked fifth, I was hoping to be better than .500 and finish in the top four in the league," Perrysburg coach Dave Hall said. "But we always expect to get to the district tournament, and we wanted to be in a position to win the NLL in the final weeks."
The young Jackets did much more than that, though. Using a lineup that usually featured six juniors and a freshman, Perrysburg posted a 26-6 final record, was ranked third in the state in Division I, and advanced to the regional finals.
In the league, the Yellow Jackets posted an 11-3 mark, falling just one game short of tying Southview for the NLL title. But Perrysburg earned three wins over the Cougars, one of which came in the regional semifinals.
"Early in the season our kids started to believe, and things started to gel," Hall said. "We beat a good Anthony Wayne team to start the league season, and when we beat Southview the first time it gave us a lot of confidence.
"But the end of the season, our kids believed they could beat anybody."
The backbone of the Jackets' success was a strong pitching staff. Junior Alec Schmenk led the way, posting a 6-0 record and 0.84 ERA while striking out 51 batters in 50 innings.
"We knew that Alec was special, but he pitched very well all season, especially in big games," Hall said. "His ERA broke the school record set by Burke Badenhop, and Burke is pitching in the major leagues with Florida."
The team's No. 2 starter was senior David Gordon, who went 6-1 with a 1.27 ERA, while third starter Matt Kruzel, a junior, finished 5-4 with a 1.48 ERA.
"David has pinpoint control, and this season he was outstanding," Hall said. "Before the year began he knew he had to step up and become our No. 2 starter, and he did a great job.
"Matt is a left-hander who has three good pitches, and he throws hard. He finished with 59 strikeouts in less than 43 innings."
Senior Collin Parrill became the Yellow Jackets' fourth starter and finished with an impressive 6-0 record and 1.87 ERA.
"Collin came out of nowhere," Hall said. "Early in the season we used him twice in relief, and he earned two wins. Once our league schedule started to back up, we used him more and more, and he had a great second half of the season.
"Without Collin, we don't win 26 games this year."
Perrysburg backed its fine pitching staff with a solid offense that averaged better than six runs per game. The secret to the lineup, according to Hall, was the ability of any hitter to produce in key situations.
"Every guy in our lineup, one through nine, got a key hit to win a game at some point in the season," Hall said. "And I think that helped everyone because no one felt pressure.
"They could go up to the plate thinking, 'If I don't do it, I know the next guy will.' And that helped them relax."
Kruzel, who played first when he wasn't pitching, led the team with a .411 batting average and tied for the team high with 26 runs scored, while Schmenk finished second with a .372 mark. Senior Matt White, the team's centerfielder, posted a .355 average while freshman rightfielder Steve Slocum had a .345 mark.
Junior third baseman Matt Garbig, who finished with a .342 batting average, was a pleasant surprise, according to Hall.
"When the season began we thought Matt would be an important backup," Hall admitted. "But he hit well during our spring trip, and he made all the plays defensively. We just couldn't get him out of the lineup."
Junior Matt Slocum, Steve's older brother, had a .329 batting average and was second on the squad with 22 RBIs, while Gordon hit .300 while leading the Yellow Jackets with 23 RBIs.
Junior shortstop Kevin Schenk had a .295 batting average while tying Kruzel for the team lead in runs scored; junior catcher Zach Kolvey hit .289 with 15 RBIs, and junior Ryan Young batted .292 while serving as a key performer as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
While Perrysburg was denied a share of its first NLL title since 2003 - a pair of losses to archrival Maumee and a late-season loss to Bowling Green were the culprits - Hall was pleased with his team's effort in league play.
"Many years, going 11-3 in the NLL will get you a league title," he explained. "This just happened to be a year where it didn't work that way. I think the NLL, as a whole, had a great year.
"It's a grind to win the NLL; in a lot of ways, it's easier to win a regional because you only need six wins to win a regional and it usually takes twice as many wins to win the league."
Perrysburg returns a number of players in the field and on the mound, so expectations will be high next season.
"I have already told the kids that we have to get better," Hall said. "This year we won a lot of close games that we could have lost, a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games. We have to improve our hitting, and we have to hit better against good pitching.
"But we have a lot of good kids coming back from a team that won 26 games, the second-most in school history. This year's team always will have a special place in my heart."