Last season in SOC II baseball, the championship trophy straddled county line.
The Waverly Tigers and Wheelersburg Pirates each finished 12-2 in league play and both hope to contend again in 2010.
Wheelersburg will rest a portion of its hopes to repeat on the arm of senior pitcher and short stop Andrew Elliot who will be one of, if not the most, experienced pitchers in the league this season.
Also back from last season's co-championship team are seniors Nick Kemper (2B, OF), Brandon Hall (3B), Caleb Leach (C), Bryce Hall (1B, OF, P) and Ryan O'Leary (INF). O'Leary sat out last season in accordance with OHSAA transfer regulations but practiced with the team. He will hit leadoff this season.
The Pirates last season went 24-3 and ended their season in the regional final against eventual state champion Indian Valley.
Having six seniors back should help the team in it's quest to repeat as SOC II champs.
"It's always important (to have senior leaders)," Wheelersburg coach Michael Estep said. "You can't replace experience. For the past few years we seem to have had a pretty good nucleus of seniors coming back each year that have contributed to the seasons of the seniors ahead of them."
Estep said the chief challenge of repeating as league champs is facing all of your opponents' best shots.
"I guess any coach would say it's making sure hat your kids understand the challenge and the fact that you have a target on your back every time out," Estep said. "When you have "Pirates" across your chest you're going to get everyone's best shot."
The teams throwing their best shots at Wheelersburg and Waverly this year appear to be improved across the board. Estep said each team in the league provides its own challenge.
"Valley has a bunch of kids coming back this year that are going to be very competitive led by Zac Bukiewicz...," Estep said. "Waverly kids are always going to be athletic and challenge you from that aspect. West has a few kids and (Anthony Knittel) coming back. Aaron Oesch is leading the Falcons in Minford this year with a decent amount of young kids but he seems optimistic. (New coach) Jason Wright taking the helm at Oak Hill will get them going in a positive direction and South Webster has Wes Loop coming back to a much improved team. I thought (coach) Shanen Zimmerman did one of the best coaching jobs in the conference last year.
"I really think the league has a ton of balance this year," Estep added.
Waverly lost several key players to graduation but have first team All-SOC selection Harrison Martin and second team selection Derek Roback back to lead the way.
Martin, who fills duty as shortstop and pitcher, batted over .400 last season and Roback is part of the Tigers' outfield that is expected to be among the league's best with Ryan Tackett and D.J. Howard also returning
"We lost quite a bit to graduation...," Waverly coach Jeff Noble said. "We've got some big holes to fill but we have a pretty good nucleus coming back."
From a pitching standpoint, Martin is among the team's most experienced hurlers but Levi Underwood and Nick Moore return as well.
Even with that talent, Noble expects a dog fight once league play begins.
"From looking at it I think its probably going to be one of the most competitive years we've had," Noble said. "We've talked about it before among the coaches. The coaches in our league do a very good job and I think anyone can sneak up on any one."
Waverly, which made it to the regional semifinals last season, opens the season against Piketon.
Of course the rest of the league has no intention of letting 2010 turn into a two team show. Last year Valley finished second, West was third, Northwest was fourth, Minford and South Webster tied for fifth and Oak Hill finished last.
The Vikings of Symmes Valley hope to repeat as league champions this season after finishing with a perfect 12-0 mark, an overall record of 17-3 and a regional tournament appearance a year ago.
"We lost in the regional semifinal 7-6 in eight innings," Symmes Valley coach Chad Renfroe said. "I lost six seniors from last year's team so I got a lot of rebuilding to do."
The third year coach will have several SOC standouts returning in 2010 beginning with pitcher Tyler Eastom. The senior when not on the mound will see time at both centerfield and short stop as well.
Junior outfielder Luke Taylor and sophomore pitcher Cody Myers will also be players to watch in the Vikings' quest to repeat.
"Those three guys are going to be the heart of the order," Renfroe said. "We have some players who haven't played in several years... It is a work in progress."
Last year's top league challengers to Symmes Valley were Green (9-3) and Eastern (7-5) with Notre Dame and Clay finishing at 6-6 in SOC I play.
"Notre Dame will be really tough this year," Renfroe said. "They have a lot of kids returning and are a well coached team. Eastern lost some talent (to graduation) but always seems to have good athletes coming up."
Both Green and Clay have new head coaches in 2010. Danny McDavid has replaced Dustin Lewis for the Bobcats and Jeff Dixon steps in at Clay for Mark Robinson.
The East Tartans finished 2-10 and Western Indians went 0-12 last year as the squads round out the seven-team league. New Boston is not fielding a baseball team for the second-straight year, but will compete in SOC I softball.
See tomorrow's Portsmouth Daily Times for the SOC softball story.