By VINCE PELUSO
Coming off one of the more successful seasons in recent years, baseball teams in the Star Beacon coverage area will have to play at a high level to match the success of the 2012 season.
The Grand Valley Mustangs reached the final four in Division III before falling to Lima Central Catholic in a semifinal game, Jefferson came up just short in a Division II district title game against Lake Catholic while Edgewood (16-7), Conneaut (10-8), Pymatuning Valley (11-15), Lakeside (10-16) and Riverside (10-6) all had 10-plus win seasons.
Gone are Star Beacon Ashtabula County co-Players of the Year — Grand Valley’s Mitchell Lake and Edgewood’s Jeff Imbrogno — as is Pymatuning Valley coach of 17 years Steve Urchek.
So when the snow finally melts — and, although that seems unlikely at the moment, it will — the 2013 season will have a very different look than that of 2012.
But, while plenty will be different, much will remain the same. Back in the dugout will be longtime St. John coach Bill Schmidt.
A deep talent pool from across the coverage area will be ready to replace the seniors who are no longer with their respective programs.
The following is a break down of each team and what how each coach feels about his team’s chances in 2013:
Spartans’ coach Walker Graher returns for his second season at Conneaut after guiding the Spartans to a 10-8 season and a Division II sectional final appearance.
With one of the area’s top arms returning in left-handed Joey Borgerding, who posted a 1.77 ERA with 51 strikeouts and a 4-1 record last year, Graher will have his ace.
But when Borgerding isn’t on the mound, Graher said it’ll be important for his pitchers to find the zone.
“Our keys for success will have to include: Pitchers throwing strikes,” he said. “(Also) defense not giving teams extra outs, timely hitting, finding different ways to manufacture runs and getting solid contribution from our first-year starters/bench.”
Also returning for Conneaut will be senior lettermen Cody Martin (P-C), Michael Mirando (C-OF), Christian Williams (IF), Dylan Marici (P-IF) and C.J. Rice (P-OF).
Depth was an issue at times for the Spartans in 2012, but with six returning lettermen and 15 varsity players, including seven pitchers, Conneaut looks to have better depth than last season.
The Spartans remain without a conference this year so Graher said they’ll relish the opportunity to compete with fellow Ashtabula County teams.
“With being an independent school, we will need to use every game as a tool for motivation, improvement and getting better every day,” he said. “There are plenty of good opponents on our schedule that will prepare us for tournament time.
“Playing teams like Lakeside, Edgewood and Jefferson will all have a rivalry feel to it so there shouldn’t be any lack of excitement or motivation.
“It will be my job to get the most out of each player regardless of who we’re playing.”
Also coming back for his second season is Warriors coach Bill Lipps.
Lipps’ crew racked up a 16-7 record in his first season at Edgewood, but the 2013 group will take on a significantly different look. Lipps loses seven lettermen including three players who are currently playing college baseball — Imbrogno (Gannon University), Bobby Dragon (Lakeland) and Zach Popely (Lakeland).
But, Edgewood does return nine lettermen led by senior pitcher Alex Vencill, who was 4-1 with a 3.06 ERA last season and junior hurler Tony Magda, who was 3-2 with a 4.01 ERA as a sophomore.
For Lipps, Edgewood’s chances revolve with how his pitchers throw.
“Everything starts on the mound and our four of (Tony) Magda, (Alex) Vencill, (Joey) Zappitelli and (Steven) Perkio are going to get a lot of work,” he said. “As those four go, so go our chances.
“Mags, Doc (Vencill) and Joey threw a lot of innings last spring (a combined 78.1 innings, 50.7 percent of Edgewood’s innings) and their experience should pay dividends. Steven had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and we still monitor very closely when he throws and how much he throws.”
In the field, only two starters return — senior Louie Wisnyai (OF) and junior Andrew Graeb (3B). The duo will be joined by returning lettermen Erik Hodges (C), Nick Johnson (C), Devon Maurer (P-OF) and Connor McLuaghlin (2B). Freshman shortstop Matt DiDonato looks to make an early impact, as well.
“Offensively, we have lost seven starters with only Louie Wisnyai and Andrew Graeb returning,” Lipps said. “Our ability to score runs will depend on how quickly the likes of Erik Hodges, Steven Perkio, Connor McLaughlin and Matt DiDonato become full-time ‘varsity’ baseball players.”
While Edgewood won’t have a conference title to contend for, Lipps doesn’t expect that to alter how his team plays game in and out.
“We are not in a conference, we do not play for a league championship,” he said. “Maybe down the road sometime that will happen.
“What we do have is a group of young men who love baseball, who enjoy each other and will come to the park and give a championship effort each and every game.”
The Eagles lose their best all-around player from last season — Derek Rose, now also playing at Lakeland — but they do have six seniors (five who lettered last season) in addition to a total of eight lettermen coming back for third-year coach Justin Drapp.
Drapp, whose roster features 15 juniors and seniors, believes how his upper classmen perform will be a big factor in whether Geneva can improve upon last year’s 3-18 record.
“Our team’s success depends on how far our upperclassmen will lead us,” he said. “And how much the lower classmen can step up when their name is called.”
Leading the pack of returning lettermen will be seniors Nick Pae (P-1B), David Smalley (Utl), Dan Camplese (C-OF), Vern Thompson (P), Eric Juncker (3B, 1B); juniors Chad Wiesberth (OF), Connor DiGiacomo (P-SS) and Brandon Kovach (OF).
Drapp believes if his players embrace the team concept, they have the talent to succeed this season.
“We have the talent; each player needs to do their job,” he said. “As a team we need to cut down on the strikeouts, errors and improve on our on-base percentage.”
Perhaps the toughest hurdle to jump for Geneva will be the difficulty of playing a Premier Athletic Conference schedule.
“The PAC is one of the toughest conferences around,” he said. “We have the talent to compete. We just need to focus for seven innings and have confidence.”
No team had more success in 2012 than coach Russ Bell’s Grand Valley Mustangs.
And, no coach will have more talent to replace in 2013 than Bell.
GV put up staggering numbers including a .425 team batting average, 167 stolen bases (nearly 100 more than second place Edgewood’s 70) and a team ERA of 2.28 in going 30-2 and reaching the Division III state semifinal before falling to Lima Central Catholic, 2-0.
The Mustangs impressive pitching numbers will be tough to replicate, but Bell believes how his team throws this season will be the key.
“As always, with high school baseball, pitching will be the key,” he said. “We lost all of the pitchers we used during our tournament run last year and there is no way we can completely replace the quality depth that we had the last few years in the pitching staff.
“However, we do have Nate Wengerd and Kyle Orgovan returning from our pitching and I expect them to perform well. Stanley Sirrine will have to add pitching to his resume this year, as well as being the best catcher in the area.”
Sirrine, who hit a walkoff in the Division III regional final against Ursuline, is the only returning starter for GV. Other returning lettermen include fellow seniors Wengerd (P-SS), Orgovan (P-3B-C-OF), Tim Steed (P-3B-SS) and junior Chandler Verhas (1B-P).
Bell is hopeful some new additions will help plug the gap left by his talented class of 2012.
“We have a couple of players returning to baseball after taking a hiatus from the sports last year and I expect them to come through for us as well, both on the mound and in the field,” he said. “There is no way I can expect the kind of offensive production we had last year. Last year we cracked the state record book top 10 in both runs scored and hits in a season, so we will have to find our own identity and not try to compare ourselves to last year’s team. We may have to find ways to manufacture runs this year and try to score runs in different ways.
“We will look to be aggressive on the base paths, which starts by putting the ball in play and we may look to bunt a lot more this year. We lost seven starters off last year’s team to graduation, but I fully expect the talent that was waiting behind them to surprise a lot of people and be very productive this year. Now is their time to shine.”
As far as the Northeastern Athletic Conference is concerned, Bell believes it will be an open league after his team ran through it at 18-0 last season.
“The conference will be a lot more up for grabs this year,” he said. “I feel that Maplewood is the favorite going into this season with all of the very good young talent they should have returning and I expect Mathews to be tough again this year.
“Of course, PV will be somewhat of an unknown going into the season this year. They have always been very competitive and well-coached under Steve Urchek in the past. Time will tell how things are going to shake out this season.”
Despite the perceived parity, and the loss of eight of his nine starters, Bell still believes his group has a strong shot at repeating as champions.
“Any one of a number of teams could have a shot to win the title,” he said. “Even with the aforementioned talent around the league and with the many players we graduated from last year’s team, I still feel we have a good shot to win the conference again this year.
“Now the players on our team just have to believe it and go out and play like it. However things turn out, I am just looking forward to another fun season and wish all of the area teams good luck.”
While the Falcons lost a group of seniors who helped them reacha Division II district championship game, Jefferson coach Scott Barber returns a healthy group of talent including much of his starting rotation from last season.
Returning is for Barber are pitchers Troy Bloom, Cole Erdel, Kurtis Fusco and Ryan Zindash. Bloom is the lone senior of the four, while the latter three are juniors.
The group combined to throw 118 innings last year or 62.7 percent of Jefferson’s innings while collectively posting a 12-4 record and 3.43 ERA.
In addition to the returning pitchers, Jefferson also has returning lettermen in seniors Scott Davidson (3B), Kyle Ashburn (OF), Brett Powers (OF), Jesse Skvarek (C-OF) as well as junior shortstop Joe Piscsalko and outfielder-pitcher Ethan Pawlowski.
For Barber the key for 2013 will be how his talented group meshes together.
“We have the potential to be a very good team,” he said. “Personal goals have to take a back seat to our team goals. If everyone commits to the team concept, the wins will definitely take care of themselves.”
The Falcons took home the All-American Conference crown last year for the first time in school history after going 9-1 in conference play.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Jefferson is Girard — which just so happens to be the Falcons’ opponent in tjeir first two league games this season.
“Girard is the team to beat and they happen to be our first two conference games,” Barber, who is entering his 13th season at Jefferson with a 204-101 record, said.
The Dragons seemed to hit their stride late in the season for Lakeside coach Andy Kiphart in 2012 as it finished strong to go 10-15, 4-10 in the difficult PAC.
Kiphart, entering his third season with the Dragons, will have to replace the talented Frank Clayman. who hit .377 last year and put up a mind-boggling 11 triples.
Aside from the loss of Clayman, though, Lakeside returns a lot including eight lettermen including junior first basemen Nick Meola (.350 batting average, 12 doubles, 16 RBI) and senior pitcher Austin DiBell, who went 5-3 as a junior with a 3.31 ERA and 36 strikeouts.
For Kiphart, pitching is the key for Lakeside.
“Pitching and defense (is the key to success),” he said. “If you throw quality strikes and make the routine plays, you give yourself a chance to be competitive day in and day out.”
Also back for Kiphart are seniors Shawn Gilbert (IF-P), Nick Senita (C), Alex DeCamillo (IF-P-C); juniors Austin Beal (P-3B-OF), Jared Zeman (OF-IF-P) and Victor Tutile (P-OF).
Kiphart thinks Chardon and South have the edge in the PAC, but there is plenty of talented teams throughout the conference.
“The conference championship will still go through Chardon and South,” he said. “But I also believe teams in the bottom half of the league standings last year had some nice, young talent and should be much improved.”
The Blue Streaks went just 9-16 last season, but third-year coach B.J. Titman has a roster with nine seniors and nine returning lettermen to work with this season.
Seniors back for Madison are utility player Joey Sines, third basemen Ross McHenry, outfielder-infielder Mike Brainard-Liddy, outfielder-infielder Mikey Morgan, center fielder Ryan St. John, outfielder Cody Davis, shortstop-outfielder Brett Monty, utility player Dominic Welniak and second basemen Ryan Ashby.
“We have a lot of returning experience,” Titman said. “A major key to our success is believing that we can beat anyone we play. Hopefully, a few really good wins last year will help us believe that going into this year.
“Our guys have put in a ton of time since last year. I really expect us to make a strong leap forward this year.”
Also back is junior first basemen Kurt Smith and catcher Lucas Ingalls.
In the field, Titman believes his team will be strong. Scoring runs will be the key. Last year the Blue Streaks batted just .260 and averaged just 3.9 runs per game, second fewest in the area.
Titman doesn’t expect that to be the case this season.
“We will pitch it and catch it well,” he said. “We struggled to score runs last year and I expect that to change this season.”
Titman believes the PAC will be a challenge once again, but his team should be thrilled with every win it achieves in conference.
“Once again, the conference will be really strong,” he said. “South, Chardon and North have been consistently at the top. Riverside and US are capable of beating anyone. I know Andy is doing really good things over at Lakeside, as well.
“The great thing about our conference is you should feel proud about every win you get because you can only win in this conference by playing your best baseball. If you have a 50-50 day you will more than likely lose.”
Coming off a 6-20 year in his first season, Perry coach John Grdina returns nine lettermen.
Seniors Ryan Zaletel (P), Mac Malec (3B), Ian Illig (SS), juniors Joe Velzineck (3B), Cody Ewing (RF), sophomores Tom Somogyi (C) and Joe Madula (CF).
“(The keys to success) are to throw strikes, play defense and timely hitting,” Grdina said.
After going 1-9 in the CVC last year, Grdina looks to take advantage of the underdog role.
“To be the darkhorse and win the whole thing,” he said.
Entering his first year with the Lakers, coach Nathan Smith will have a wealth of experience to work with this season.
Nine lettermen return from PV’s 11-15 team last year. The Lakers went 9-7 in the NAC, finishing third.
Back are seniors Tim Cross (IF-P), Jon Burford (IF), Mason Lipani (P-OF), Daren Petrowski (SS-OF-P); juniors Jordan Lopez (OF-C-P), Hunter Rhoades (P-1B); sophomores Chase Thurber (C-1B-P), Travis Kiser (C-OF-2B) and Austin Barnard (OF).
“We have a lot of quality with our returning letterwinners,” Smith said. “Our team will go as far as our starting pitching takes us. Our team has a tremendous amount of flexibility.”
Rhoades returns with the best pitching resume, going 3-3 last season in posting a 4.46 ERA including two complete games.
The early part of the season will be the key for the Lakers.
“The first few games will help us solidify our starting rotation and help iron out the lineup,” Smith said. “Another key is staying aggressive in all respects of the game. The team needs to maintain that focus at the plate on the base paths, and in the field.”
Smith believes his team has a good shot at contending for a NAC title, which Grand Valley rolled to last year in going 18-0.
The Lakers contended in the NAC last year, going 9-7 and the league appears to be more open this season.
“I think we have a chance to contend for the league title,” he said. “We have the talent returning and another year of development.
“If we stay aggressive, we should be competitive in all our games. If our seniors take ownership on the field we’ll have a good season.”
The Beavers finished 10-16 last season, but much of that was a result of a difficult schedule that coach Ed Humes put his team through.
Humes’ top hitter from last season, Tyler Kmitt (.364, four doubles, five triples, seven RBI) is gone, but he returns junior cather-pitcher Dan Walters, who batted .304 last year with seven extra base hits and 18 RBI, as well as junior pitcher-centerfielder Drew Tornow and senior right fielder-pitcher Mike Gundling (2-1, 4.10 ERA).
“We have two veteran pitchers back who we need big things from and we need our new pitchers to perform as we project them to,” he said. “We are a fairly inexperienced team with only five lettermen back so we need our younger players to step up and help us immediately.”
The other returning lettermen are senior second baseman Joe Tribuzzo and shortstop Andy Koller.
Riverside also has two other seniors in catcher Dillon Lilly and first baseman Ian Rebenock.
“I think we have a solid defensive team with above average speed,” Humes said. “I feel that we will hit a little better than last year and on the mound we have a little more depth, albeit young and unproven than previous years.”
Humes, who enters his 14th season with Riverside with a 186-152 record, said he knows the PAC will be difficult as always, but believes there will be a lot of parity throughout the league.
“The PAC is always tough,” he admitted. “Anyone can beat anyone on any given day so you have to play well every time out. Chardon has some talent back and they will be tough. After that, North should be good and South and University are always solid.
“Madison and Lakside are improving and Geneva always plays tough. It should be another interesting season.”
After a long hiatus from coaching, Bill Schmidt returns to rebuild the Heralds program he led to a state championship in 1983.
Last year’s Heralds went 15-5, but that was with a team of players from other schools. This year’s St. John team will be comprised solely of players from the school.
With that, comes plenty of inexperience.
Back is senior outfielder Mike Mahoney, junior infielder-pitcher Chris Stein, sophomore outfielder Josh Williams and sophomore first baseman Mike Zullo.
Those are the only four with playing experience at the varsity level.
Schmidt will need contributions from six freshmen — Zach Taylor (IF-P-C), Paul Calaway (C-P), Adam Fedler (IF), Jim Wood (IF-P), Josh Stoll (OF) and Tristan Kile (OF).
“Throw strikes — solid defense will be key,” Schmidt said. “This will be a learning experience — we will improve as the season progresses.
“We need to always have a positive mindset.”
As far as the Lake Effect Conference is concerned, Schmidt admittedly doesn’t know much about it.
“Since this is my first year back, we will be feeling our way through the season until we better know each team,” he said. “Our goal is to be competitive.”
Peluso is a sports writer for the Star Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.