By VINCE PELUSO
Although there still may be snow on the ground, spring is here and the 2014 high school baseball season begins in just days.
Ashtabula County’s top two teams from a year ago — Jefferson and Edgewood — return large senior classes that are loaded with talent and look poised to make a run at a Division II district title.
Teams such as Grand Valley, Pymatuning Valley, Conneaut and Madison are looking to replace talent, but have plenty of younger players who can make an impact at the varsity level.
Conneaut, Geneva and Lakeside welcome new coaches this season — Rich Shields (Conneaut), Jared Sziber (Geneva) and John Anservitz (Lakeside) — who are getting their first shots at coaching varsity baseball.
Needless to say, the upcoming season looks to be filled with plenty of talented players and teams that will contend for conference titles and tournament success.
Following is a breakdown of each team in the Star Beacon’s coverage area and how their respective coaches feel about the upcoming season.
Rich Shields takes over the Spartans program, which will look to fill the void left by 2013 Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year Joey Borgerding.
Borgerding did it all for Conneaut in 2013 as the team’s top pitcher and best hitter, but Shields has plenty of talent returning to help replace that loss.
A deep senior class that includes Chandler Stitt (2B-P), Sam Distelrath (3B-RF), Dylan Morici (CF-P), C.J. Rice (LF-P), Mikey Teed (2B-P) and Ryan Otaman (1B-P).
Shields like what he has in his first year in charge.
“We have a great group of young men that I believe will have a lot of success this season,” he said. “The keys to making this happen are strong pitching and improvement on offense.
“I expect our pitchers to hold down the opposition’s offense and after we get a few games in this season I expect our offense to come alive.”
Also returning as a letterman is junior Troy Colucci (IF-OF-P).
With Shields focus on pitching, he has no shortage of potential arms with eight players on the roster listed as pitchers.
With that in mind, Shields believes defense will be the backbone of his team.
“I believe that our defense — especially the strength in the arms of our outfielders — will carry us this season,” he said. “We have a solid middle infield and I expect double plays to be common practice.”
Conneaut remains independent this season, making it the only team the Star Beacon coverage area without a conference.
Back for his third season with the Warriors, coach Bill Lipps (2013 Star Beacon Ashtabula County co-Coach of the Year) has a team loaded with senior talent reminiscent of the 2012 team that won 15 games in his first season.
All told, Lipps returns 12 lettermen from last year’s squad, including eight juniors.
Still, Lipps said it won’t necessarily be easy for the Warriors to replace the two seniors they lost from last year’s Division II sectional title team.
“We have to replace two great players in Alex Vencill (37 IP, 1.89 ERA) and Louie Wisnyai (.442, 29 RBI),” he said. “To replace guys of that caliber, our role players from a year ago need to become big contributors.”
The biggest question mark for Edgewood, like many teams, will be its pitching staff.
With the loss of Vencill, the only two pitchers who saw significant varsity time last year were seniors Anthonie Magda (P-OF) and Joey Zappitelli (P-OF).
“After Tony Magda and Joey Zappitelli, our pitching staff is a question mark,” Lipps said. “We have a group of five or six pitchers who had small roles in 2013. They need to step into the spotlight this spring. The month of March will determine who separates themselves from the rest of the pack.”
Also from the senior class that returns as lettermen are third baseman Andrew Graeb, catcher Erik Hodges, Nick Johnson (C-1B), Alex Kisha (P-OF), second baseman Connor McLaughlin and Steven Perkio (1B-P-OF).
Also back are juniors Alex Newson (OF-INF), pitcher Dan Joslin and sophomores Al Graeb (3B-DH-P) and starting shortstop Matt DiDonato.
While pitching is a concern, Lipps also wants to see his team find a little more pop at the plate.
“Offensively, we return some very good hitters but we lacked something in 2013,” he said. “Comparing the numbers in 2012, 32 percent of our hits went for extra bases. In 2013, only 18 percent did. It’s easier to score from second base than it is from first.”
For the first time since it was in the NEC, Edgewood will have a chance to compete for a conference title as they join the All-American Conference.
“The All-American Conference is a great baseball conference,” he said. “We are excited to compete against some great baseball programs.”
Edgewood played several of the teams it will be contending with for a title last season, including Jefferson Niles and Lakeview.
“Poland, Struthers, Jefferson, Niles and Lakeview are schools who win a lot of baseball game,” Lipps said. “I’m confident that our core players — Graeb, DiDonato, McLaughlin, Zappitelli, Magda, Perkio and Johnson — can play against anyone.
“How soon our role players get to the AAC level will go a long way in deciding the success we have within the conference.”
Having one of the top players in the area return in the form of senior pitcher-infielder Connor Digiacomo will certainly help first-year coach Jared Sziber.
The Eagles will have a strong senior class for Sziber to work with as joining Digiacomo is Brandon Kovach (CF-P), infielder Ryan Nappi, utility man Steve Robertson and outfielders Steve Jewell, Chad Weisbarth and Kyle Burkhammer.
The other returning letterman for Geneva is junior Josh Sanchez (INF-P).
Sziber likes the mix of veterans and underclassmen his team has.
“We have a good mix of veteran and young talent,” he said. “In order for us to reach our full potential the young talent needs to grow up fast.”
Sziber expects the Premier Athletic Conference to continue to be competitive with North and South near the top of the pack.
While difficult, he expects his team to contend.
“North and South will be the favorites and rightly so,” he said. “I fully expect us to be competitive and right there in the mix toward the top of the conference.”
Grand River Academy
In his first year at GRA, Brian Ballentine has four returning lettermen to work with.
Back are seniors Billy Fanning (2B) and Leo Goldman (C) and juniors Scott Sender (1B) and pitcher Gary Leslie.
“Defense and starting pitching (are key),” Ballentine said. “We lost a lot of talent from last year’s LEC championship team.
“We hope that the new student-athletes will step in and fill the void.”
After winning the LEC the past two seasons, Ballentine is expecting another title.
“We have set our goals high,” he said. “We are hoping for a third straight LEC title.”
For the second straight year, Mustangs coach Russ Bell is looking at replacing a lot of talent.
GV was hit hard by graduation last year after qualifying for state in 2012, but it responded with a 17-7 record and a tie for first in the Northeastern Athletic Conference.
Bell returns two seniors who lettered last season --— Chandler Verhas (1B-P) and Jack Scott (OF). Mustang sophomore Matt Larned (SS-P) also returns as lettermen from 2013.
“The biggest key to the season will be how well our very young team gains confidence, matures and adapts to the competiveness and speed of the game at the varsity level,” Bell said. “We only have two returning starters from last year’s team — Chandler Verhas and Matt Larned. I know Chandler will be a great leader for this team and he will be key to helping us maintain a team-first positive attitude. I look forward to him having another good year for us at first base and at the plate. He will also have to step up into a new role as a pitcher for us, as well.”
As he does prior to every season, Bell stressed the importance of pitching.
With only one pitcher returning who letter last year, Bell is counting on 12 potential pitchers from the sophomore and freshman class to step up and perform at a varsity level.
“Another key (like every season) will be pitching,” he said. We only have one pitcher returning from last year (Larned) who is also our shortstop. I expect him to not only have a good year at short and at the plate, but to step in to the lead role on the pitching staff. We have a number of young arms that show promise, but only time will tell.”
While GV might be young, Bell said that will not be excuse for his team
“We will not let our youth be an excuse,” he said. “We will keep working hard every day to improve, play the game with enthusiasm and stay positive when the inevitable bumps in the road come our way. It should be fun to watch such a young group grow both as baseball players and young men as the season progresses.”
After splitting for a conference title last year, Bell thinks the NAC is wide open this season.
“I feel the conference is up for grabs,” he said. “The conference is so well balanced and will only be tougher with the addition of Windham. The difference this year will be that the conference is going back to divisions. As defending co-champs, PV will be tough to beat again this year. Maplewood and Mathews will be tough as always.
“I know with our recent run of success, everyone will be gunning for us. Teams are not going to care about our youth and inexperience, nor should they. I just want our kids to compete hard, have fun and play the game with fundamentals and enthusiasm. We will see where that takes us.”
In his 12th season in charge of the Mustangs, Bell wanted to wish success to the rest of the area’s teams.
“I want to wish all of the area coaches and players a fun, successful and safe season,” he said. “Good luck and let’s hope we all have a great spring.”
Arguably the most consistent program during coach Scott Barber’s (2013 Star Beacon Ashtabula County co-Coach of the Year) his 14 years in charge, the Falcons are poised for another strong season.
As a winner of 220 career games, when Barber makes a comment such as this, people start to pay attention.
“We have without a doubt one of the best senior and junior classes on paper that I have ever had,” he said.
The leaders of that group are seniors Joe Piscsalko (SS-P), Ethan Pawlowski (OF-P-3B), Ryan Zindash (P-3B), Cole Erdel (OF-P), second baseman Steve Houser and pitcher Kurtis Fusco.
Also back are junior first baseman Matt Barber and junior catcher Chris Wittenmyer.
“We also have some very strong sophpmores that will continue to push the upperclassmen for spots in the lineup,” he said.
The leader of that group is sophomore Colten Wilber, who was sensational on the mound as a freshman.
Focus is the key to success, Barber said.
“The key is that our guys put all the personal stats and non-baseball activites aside and give me complete focus for two or three hours a day to accomplish the only stat that matters — wins!” he said.
After winning the AAC in its first two years in the league (sharing it a year ago), Jefferson is in search of its third straight title.
However, that will be easier said than done as the conference is realigned and Jefferson will contend with the likes of Poland, Struthers, Niles and new entry Edgewood.
Those are the teams, in addition to the Falcons, Barber expects to be competing for the title.
“Realignment of the AAC makes a third straight title much tougher,” he said. “Schools such as Poland, Struthers, Niles and Edgewood all have potentially district championship-caliber teams. Then, you take Lakeview, that has without a doubt the best pitcher we could face in David LeMasters. They can beat anyone when he takes the mound.
“I do feel we will compete with any of those teams for the conference title.”
Taking over the Dragons and getting his first shot as a varsity baseball coach is John Anservitz.
Lakeside struggled last season, going 6-16 and finishing just 1-15 in the PAC.
If that’s to change, it will start with a strong senior class led by Nick Meola (P-1B), Victor Tuttle (OF-P), Jared Zeman (INF-P), Caleb Garcia (OF) and Austin Beal (INF-P).
Attitude is one of the main things Anservitz is stressing to his team.
“I know that if we play together, stay positive and work hard, good things will happen,” he said. “I am proud of the unity that has taken place. My job is to make sure that continues.”
Also back for the Dragons are juniors Josh O’Block (OF), Tristan Hayford (INF-P) and sophomore Matt Rocco (INF-OF).
Despite its recent struggles in the conference, Anservitz doesn’t expect that to be the case this season.
“I believe that all the hard work that has been put in by my players up to this point will translate to our team being very competitive in the PAC,” he said.
Next to Bell and Grand Valley, the area coach with the most talent to replace is Blue Streaks boss B.J. Titman.
The only returning lettermen for Madison are seniors Kurt Smith (1B), Lucas Ingalls (C) and Brian Sotyak (INF).
“We are returning very little pitchers with varsity experience,” he said. “It will be vital that our young pitchers like they belong. Also very important to fill the senior leadership that we lost.”
Titman will be selecting from a pool of five pitchers — two juniors and three freshmen.
The fourth-year Madison coach said he expects progress throughout the year.
“With only returning two starters people need to step up and earn their time and not have the mentality that it is just their turn,” he said. “I expect us to compete at a high level and finish stronger than we start.”
After years of trying to get to the top of the PAC, Titman hopes this could be the year they breakthrough.
While they’re youthful, Titman doesn’t just want his team to compete for a title but focus on winning one.
“PAC has finished very similar every year, with either North or South up top and Chardon, Riverside and US pushing,” he said. “I expect our young guys to compete at a high level and push our way into that group. We have inched closer every year for the last three years. It will be very important for us to not be satisfied with competing.
“We will focus on winning to earn our way into the top of the group.”
After tying for a NAC title in his first season, coach Nathan Smith is looking to build off that success in 2014.
That will start with their offense, led by junior Division III all-state selection Travis Kiser (C-OF).
“I believe we will have enough offense to keep us in most of our games,” he said. “The key to how good our team will become is how our pitching develops. We will have to rely on some promising, but young, arms.”
Also returning for the Lakers as lettermen are seniors Collin Winkler (3B-P), Hunter Rhoades (1B-P) and Mitchell Dick (SS) and junior Chase Thurber (C-OF).
“We also have some good position battles between our juniors and sophomores,” Smith said. “The depth of our team should help us maintain a high level during the season.”
Despite some losses from graduation, Smith plans to contend for another NAC title.
“I believe we should be very competitive within our conference,” he said. “We lost a lot of seniors, but have maintained an extremely talented core. I think our lineup will pose a lot of problems for teams if we progress with our current development. Last year was a very competitive league and I expect the same this year.”
Always one of the most competitive programs in the area, Ed Humes returns for his 15th year in charge of the Beavers program.
One win shy of 200 for his career, Humes has a veteran group that should help Riverside improve on last year’s 13-16 record.
“We need our experienced pitchers to carry us until our hitters get going,” he said. “As always, we need our best players to be that on a daily basis, our best players.”
Leading a group of seven senior lettermen is catcher-pitcher Dan Walters, outfielder Ross Dawson, Drew Barlow (P-OF), Jake Harris (INF-P), Garham Beccker (INF-P), Drew Tarnow (OF-P) and Anthony Lilly (C-P).
Humes likes his defense, but offense is the focus of his concerns.
“We should be very solid defensively, a little concerned with our offense,” he said.
Also back are juniors Brandon Shaffer (SS-P) and Ron Krsolovic (2B-P).
As far as the PAC is concerned, Humes know who should be at the top.
“North is still the team to beat, along with Chardon and South,” he said.
Returning for the second season in his second stint with the Heralds, coach Bill Schmidt wasn’t able to get a win in 2013 as an extremely inexperienced St. John squad finished the year 0-11-1.
That doesn’t appear to be the case this season, as the Heralds are still young but Schmidt thinks they will be improved.
“Success to any program is strong pitching and defense — we have improved in both areas,” he said. “We have a strong freshmen class. (It will be key) to get all players to buy into the program.”
Back as returning lettermen are juniors Josh Williams (OF), Mike Zullo (1B) and sophomores Paul Callaway (OF-P-C), Adam Fedler (2B), Josh Stoll (OF), Zach Taylor (SS-P) and freshman James Wood (SS-P).
Schmidt said he hopes his team will compete within in the LEC this year.
“We showed improvement during last season and with a positive approach we will build on that to become more competitive this year,” he said.
Peluso is a sportswriter for the Star Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.