In its place is the “ping” of aluminum as spring ushers in the beginning of baseball season. For a few teams, the diamond will be especially kind, with senior-laden squads looking to repeat past success. For others, much youth is combined with the experience, but there are still many expectations.
In the SOC II, most of the talk has been on Wheelersburg, the defending SOC II champions, which returns a good portion of its team from last season. That's not to say the rest of the conference are slouches, though, and a tight race could develop. Elsewhere, Portsmouth is looking to overcome the loss of nine seniors, but the Trojans have already shown they could win their fair share of games.
With seniors such as John Stegman, Drew Sampson and Brandon White filling the roster, expectations are high in Wheelersburg. Add to the fact that the Pirates are defending SOC II champions, and coach Michael Estep could have a repeat on his hands.
Fortunately for him, his players aren't letting those expectations get the best of them.
“That is just a part of young men maturing,” he said. “They know that there is a responsibility when you are the hunted. You have to match the intensity of your opponent, because you are going to get the best of other teams whenever you play. We have to stay grounded, and until we prove ourselves, expectations is just a word.”
Despite weather raining out a few of Wheelersburg's games, the Pirates are 2-0 on the young season, including a win over Minford to start conference play. Estep believes that his team could contend for the SOC II crown again, but isn't taking other teams lightly.
“I would like to think that we are going to be competitive and near the top of the race,” he said. “I think the league is going to be more balanced than it was last season. The young kids that played last year have another season under their belt, and everyone is going to be athletic.”
One of the early contenders for the SOC II title is another team in orange and black - West. Already 3-1 on the season, the Senators have picked up wins over Northwest and East, which was a doubleheader sweep. Coach Darren McNeil said West is going to compete this season, relying on a combination of the old with the new.
“We have got six seniors, three sophomores and nine freshmen, so there is a good mix of experience with youth,” he said. “As long as the pitchers throw strikes and we play solid defense behind them, then we should be able to compete in the SOC II. We don't have a lot of experience, but they are overcoming that and working hard in practice.”
Some players that will contribute to the Senators' performance are Caleb Staggs, Steven Kelly, Kyle Ruggles and Mason Reiser, along with Drew Collier Cody McGraw and Justin Stevenson. Players such as Tyler Hall, Travis Journet and Alfie Bricker have contributed as well, and McNeil said that each player will have to accept his role.
“I don't like to put any pressure on just one kid. We have to play as a team, and that is what is going to win games for us. If we do that, we can compete with any team in the conference. I feel that we will have a successful season, and we could be in the running for the conference crown.”
A perennial contender for the SOC II crown is Valley, and this season shouldn't be an exception. The Indians are younger than they have been in recent years, however, as only six seniors fill the lineup. That hasn't hindered Valley yet, as the team is 3-1 on the year, including a no-hitter by David Myers
“We have only two starters coming back, so we have been incorporating new players into the lineup,” said Indians coach Dean Schuler. “Really, it is just a matter of getting kids playing time. Anytime you get on the field, kids are going to have a chance to get better, and I feel that it is just a matter of time before we do the same.”
Myers, Tyler Merritt, Justin Bailey, Kyle Arnold, Josh Days and Derrick Smith are the seniors, and will be counted on for leadership on the field. Joining them will be the junior quartet of David Spriggs, Ryan Turner, Chuck Gregory and Justin Howard, but Schuler is not ready to say how the season will turn out.
“It is hard to say,” he said. “Wheelersburg has most of its team coming back, so we will have to see what happens. Two weeks from now, people are going to be better than they were today, so it is going to shape up to be an interesting season.”
A new face guides Northwest this season, as Keith Detwiller assumes the reins. Detwiller has many familiar faces greeting him from last year's team, though, so the transition could be a little easier. Thanks to the weather, the Mohawks have played just one game, an 8-7 loss to West, but the experience is a plus for Detwiller.
“Every team has things that need to be worked on, though, and ours is no exception,” he said. “We have put the bat on the ball, but we just haven't been able to bring them in consistently. Hopefully, as the season moves along, that will change and we will score some runs.”
Northwest will get that experience from a host of players, including Michael Rice, Aaron Ervin, Heath Fitzpatrick, Josh Cassidy, Ryan Sissel and Brandon Colley. In addition, Mitch McCloskey will be a vital part of Northwest's pitching lineup, which could help the Mohawks contend for an SOC crown.
“Right now, in the past few years, Valley and Wheelersburg have been the cream of the crop,” said Detwiller. “I don't see a reason why we couldn't get our shot at the SOC II title as the season goes along. With all of the senior leadership we have right not, I believe that we can be contenders this season.”
If there is one thing Minford has a lot of, it is youth. Starting six sophomores in their lineup, the Falcons are a young squad, but are showing signs of continued improvement. Coach Tim Martin said the team is capable of playing better than the 0-2 records would indicate.
“There is still a little inconsistency,” he said. “Hopefully, we will get better as the season goes along. Right now, Luke Lester, a junior, is hitting the ball well. We are still doing things wrong and we could do a lot of things better. Andy Bailey has had to move to the catcher position because of shoulder rehab, but he has taken the change well and has also been hitting the ball well.”
Bailey is one of three seniors on the team, including T.A. Phillips and Nick Pendleton. Lester is joined by fellow juniors Jake Cinereski and Sean Childers, and the group is counted on to lead the eight sophomores that compile the rest of the squad. Despite the youth, Martin is confident his team could make a run.
“I would say that Wheelersburg is the team to beat in the SOC II,” he said. “From there, it is up in the air. Even though we are young, I feel that we have as good a chance as the rest of the teams to be in one of the top positions.”
Like Minford, South Webster is faced with a lot of youth this season, but has some upperclassmen leadership that will stand in the gap until the young players mature. The Jeeps are 1-2 on the young season after dropping a doubleheader on Saturday to Westfall, but coach Shanen Zimmerman likes what he sees on the field
“We start with the fundamentals with them, but it is a great group of kids that want to learn,” he said. “Their performance on the field has been great so far, and they show up at every game ready to play. Every play, we are trying to teach, and they have been receptive.”
Isaac Coriell, Ryan McClintic and Barry Collins are the seniors of the team, each having played four years for Zimmerman. Noting their ability to fit into their roles, Zimmerman said that they understand what he wants as a coach. That willingness to lead could in turn lead South Webster in the thick of the SOC II
“We fit right in the middle of the SOC right now,” said Zimmerman. “We will get some wins, and we know that the losses will come, but it is just a matter of responding to each game and learning from them.”
It sounds like a broken record, but Waverly shares many traits as Minford and South Webster, especially in the youth department. Coach Tom Monroe said this is the youngest team he has coached, but it does have some positives that could make a difference in where the Tigers finish the regular season.
“They are very athletic,” he said. “We are having to play lot of underclassmen, and we haven't got outside much. I feel that they are going to come along as the season progresses. It will just be a matter of getting them in the right positions.”
Waverly does have some experience to draw from, including Seth Salisbury, Brian Cutler and John Wolfe. Cutler is one of the team's strongest pitcher, including Dustin Boggs and Seth Bowman, and are the cornerstones for 2006. Coach Monroe is not saying that the Tigers will be near the top of the SOC II, but is confident they can make a good showing.
While a young team is the order of the day in Oak Hill, the Oaks have an enthusiasm for the upcoming baseball season. According to coach Darin Davis, the Oaks have improved by leaps and bounds in the past few seasons since he took the coaching reins, and that could translate into success for the 1-3 squad.
“Defensively, we have been playing well,” he said. “On offense, we are not hitting the ball like we need to, but if we can do that, then I feel we will be just fine. We have been down a few years, but the work we put in in the summer will help us in the SOC II.”
The trio of Garland Stiltner, Ian Hall and Chase Allman will be the main cogs in the Oaks' game plan. While the team has struggled through some lean years recently, Davis said that his team can bring some victories to the Jackson County village, both now and for the future.
Any team losing nine players because of graduation wouldn't be faulted in thinking the season would be a little rough at time. Not Portsmouth - which started out the season with an 11-1, no-hit performance by Steven Taylor and Brian Estep over Valley. While the Trojans lost to Wheelersburg a couple of days afterward, coach Doug Poage is pleased with his 1-1 squad.
“Right now, we are doing the little things that we work on every day right,” he said. “We are playing fundamentally sound baseball, and with such a young team, you hope to do those things well, and the kids have shown that they are capable of doing so. I am pleasantly surprised so far, playing two solid programs and coming out on the winning end.”
Aside from Taylor and Estep on the mound, Portsmouth has had solid performances from the duo of John and Howard Harcha, as well as Jason Jones. While Poage is not saying how the season will turn out, the secret to the Trojans' success will be whether they can continue to play fundamentally sound baseball.
“Winning and losing will take care of itself,” said Poage. “We just want the kids to progress and keep getting better on the field.”
JOSH HICKLE can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 241.