Thinking about putting hands on the Northwest Ohio Athletic League championship should probably start with trying to pull Wauseon’s hands off of it.
The defending league champion Indians have a tight grip on the league’s top spot and aren’t looking to give it away to anyone.
Yet Wauseon coach Trent Thomas, whose team won the NWOAL title by a game over Bryan last season, anticipates another challenging experience to try and retain the league’s top spot.
“I believe the NWOAL is one of the most balanced leagues in the area, if not the state, with six of the nine teams winning 16-plus games last season,” Thomas said. “Each and every night you must bring your ‘A’ game to win a league title. One through nine in our league is as balanced as I think it has been in many years with many teams returning top pitching.”
However, Wauseon has been pegged by the league’s coaches as the preseason favorite to finish first in the NWOAL.
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Bryan placed second in the coaches poll, followed by Archbold, Patrick Henry, Swanton, Delta, Liberty Center, Evergreen, and Montpelier.
“I believe that Bryan, Archbold and Patrick Henry have the returning players — and especially the pitching — that would make them the top teams to beat this season,” Thomas said. “However, as in years past, this league always has those teams that are on the rise, and I believe Liberty Center, Swanton, Evergreen, Delta, and Montpelier could beat anybody on any night.”
Anything can happen on any night in the NWOAL — that’s a shared opinion among the league’s coaches.
“As a look at the NWOAL league race, I believe it will be a very balanced league, and several teams have the ability to win the league title,” Bryan coach Jeff Inselmann said. “However, I believe the team to beat is Wauseon, who is led by the best player in the NWOAL [Ty Suntken], as well as some other key power arms and talented hitters.
“Archbold is right up there as well with the return of right-hander Tyson Schnitkey, who could shut down any team on any given day. Patrick Henry also has a power arm in Josh Peterson, as well as other solid core players returning.”
Patrick Henry coach Shawn Sunderman, who returns almost his entire starting lineup, has a team that could push the defending champs for No. 1, but understands that it won’t be easy to do.
“I see the NWOAL being extremely balanced and competitive this season,” Sunderman said. “There will be no such thing as an easy game this spring in league play. Look for defending NWOAL champions Wauseon at the top along with Bryan and Archbold.”
Archbold and Swanton have enough talent to make a move up the ranks, while Delta and Liberty Center have lineups capable of surprising any team on any day.
Evergreen and Montpelier are teams that can’t be taken lightly.
Wauseon (18-5, 8-0), coached by Thomas, has a wealth of talent and experience on his roster that makes the Indians the team to beat in the NWOAL.
The Indians have the tools to repeat as league champions despite losing last season’s top-hurler Jake Trejo to graduation.
Ty Suntken, an All-Ohio first team infielder, provides the kind of leadership that has a way of lifting teams to titles. The senior shortstop tagged four home runs, batted .446 with 25 RBIs, 36 runs scored, while also posting a 5-0 record on the mound. He fanned 43 batters and had a 1.02 ERA.
Axel Bueter, a senior outfielder, hit .356, driving in 26 runs with 20 runs scored. An all-district, second-team selection, he registered a 3-2 pitching record, striking out 29 in 22 2/3 innings. Clay Tefft, a senior infielder, batted .263 with 12 RBIs and 12 runs scored.
Also, juniors pitcher Nate Suntken (.385), pitcher/infielder Jacob Newlove (.355), and catcher Josh Kauffman (.308) were also contributors a season ago and are expected to deliver again this spring.
“We are looking to continue to make progress to become one of the top programs in the NWOAL,” Thomas said. “We look to get over the hump and make a tournament run, as well as compete for a league title year-in and year-out.
“We have obviously lost several talented players to graduation and will have to try to replace some of the production, but that will not be an easy task.”
Yet juniors Peyten Shadbolt and Caleb Andrews — as well as sophomores J.J. Kauffman, Brady Rupp, Jac Flory, and Josh Whitcomb — will have a chance to do their part to help Wauseon win the NWOAL again.
Bryan (18-7, 7-1) is the No. 1 contender to challenge Wauseon for the top spot in the league.
The Golden Bears have 10 returning letter-winners from a team that was only a victory shy of at least sharing the league crown.
Senior infielder Jordan Bostater, a three-year letter-winner, was an All-NWOAL, second-team performer last season. Senior infielders Austin Martin and Thomas Martin are also expected to provide veteran leadership.
Juniors shortstop Nate Rau, catcher Derek Knisely, and pitcher Bailey Martin were All-NWOAL honorable mention performers as sophomores.
“We’re focusing on becoming more fundamentally sound in hopes of contending for the NWOAL title and advancing as far into the state tournament as possible,” Inselmann said. “Our season will depend on our ability for our pitchers to throw strikes, play solid defense, and our hitters need to drive runs in consistently.”
Archbold (20-6, 6-2) figures as a player in the NWOAL race with first-team, all-league selection Jase Grosjean (.479, 17 SB) and second-team, all-league performer Tyson Schnitkey (.333, 28 RBIs) accepting lead roles.
Fellow seniors Evan Wyse, Micah Bernath, Jacob Wagner, and Emerson Radabaugh are also expected to provide experience for the Blue Streaks.
“We will need to improve in all aspects of the game as the season progresses,” Archbold coach Dick Selgo said. “We need to make the routine plays on defense on a consistent basis and work hard on our hitting.”
Patrick Henry (18-8, 5-3) is also a team to be reckoned with.
Sunderman has plenty of returning talent to work with. Nine letter-winners are on the roster. Three-year letter-winner Kollin Spence batted .341 with 21 RBIs and 23 runs scored last season. Derek Hoops, a two-year letter-winner, is the top returning batter for Patrick Henry after finishing his junior season batting .495 with 33 runs scored and 27 RBIs.
Seniors Josh Petersen (.304, 27 runs) and Logan Ziegler (.348, 23 runs) are also key returners who could help the Patriots rise.
“We’ll need a strong infield making all the routine plays, and a balanced batting order will be needed to make the Patriots move from the middle of the pack to the top of the NWOAL,” Sunderman said. “[We] must be healthy throughout the spring to be able to compete in the NWOAL and the Division IV tournament.”
Swanton (16-10, 2-5) presents a roster that provides coaches plenty to appreciate. Nine letter-winners are expected on the field for first-year coach Tim McCarthy.
Junior Clayton Ringle, a NWOAL first-team selection, leads the list. He batted .370 with 22 RBIs and six stolen bases.
Zach Turk, a junior, is Swanton’s top returning pitcher after recording an ERA of 1.91 in 77 innings of work on the mound last spring.
“We return a lot of experience from a year ago, including our three top arms,” McCarthy said. “Pitching and defense will be a couple strong points.”
Jacob Peabody, Brady Harlett, Kyle Dockery, and Tony Pezzin are also expected to make a difference for the Bulldogs.
Delta (7-19, 2-6) returns plenty of experience to make some noise in the league.
With eight returners back on the field, Delta appears in position to improve after Damon Mattimore’s first season as head coach.
Senior infielders Wyatt Bronson (.333, nine doubles) and Jeffery McQuillin (.358, 18 RBI) are coming off of all-league, honorable mention seasons.
Seniors Andrew Stickley, Tyler Fahrer, Anthony Demaline, Trey Smith, and Cody Matthews are also returners who showed plenty of potential a year ago and are expected to contribute more this season.
“Becoming a unified team is what is going to help us achieve our goals that we have set for this year,” Mattimore said.
Infielders Blake Parker, Blake Gladiuex, and Aaron Abbott as well as outfielder Dylan Nostrant provide depth for the Panthers.
Liberty Center (13-13, 3-5), led by third-year Tigers coach Paul Amstutz, is looking to continue to improve on those efforts.
Seniors Mason Knipp and Kaleb Pohlman were all-league honorable mentions last spring. Trevor Geahlen, Logan Meyer, and Jarren Altman also have varsity experience Liberty Center will lean on to try and move up in the league standings.
Amstutz heads into the season with optimism about the Tigers being even more competitive.
“We have been swinging the bats very well, and as long as we can put the defensive aspect with it, we could have a very good year,” Amstutz said. “The team is very motivated to pick up where we left off last year, where we finished the last 12 games 9-3.”
Evergreen (19-8, 3-5) lost most of its starting lineup from last year’s team to graduation.
Returners senior Jacob Dowling and juniors Ethan Van Locke and Kyle Brighton have the responsibility of leading a young and inexperienced roster.
Seniors Gattett Woodbury and Jake Willeman — as well as juniors Alex Ankoviak, Jacob Betz, Luke Hohman, Landon Lumbrezer, and Alex Sullivan — will have an opportunity to make an impact as newcomers.
“We lost nine players to graduation from last year's team,” Evergreen coach Brian Nagy said. “Our players showed great improvement last summer, and we will have great competition within the team to challenge for starting positions.”
The Vikings are banking on getting better over time.
“The key to our season will be how quickly we mature and our ability to make our opponents earn runs, as well as our defense’s ability to limit big innings,” Nagy said.
Montpelier (6-16, 0-8), led by coach Lance Thorp, is looking for improvement, even if it’s in small increments to become more competitive.
Tyler Brenner, who graduated, batted .352 to lead the way a year ago. Seniors Luke Malone, Keegan Hitzeman, Josh Lewellen, and Parker Houk take over the reigns as team leaders.