Area teams reloaded as 2012 baseball season begins

The past is past.
Following Culver Com-munity’s first sectional championship in 25 years last season, that’s the message head coach Mike Elliott and his staff are sending to the Cavaliers this year.
With just four starters back in pitcher and utility player Collin Stevens, second baseman/ pitcher Sam Hissong, short stop/ pitcher Kyle Vlach and center fielder Nick Pritz, Elliott is hoping his largely inexperienced team can find an identity of its own in 2012 rather than resting on the laurels of last season’s historic finish.
“We haven’t been talking about last year at all. We’re focusing on this year and trying to get better,” said Elliott.
“We had some success last year. Those kids put the time in. It’s these kids’ time now to step up, and if they step up we can still be a really good baseball team. The early part of the season is going to go a long way to build some confidence in the kids.”
Joining the aforementioned foursome this season are a trio of seniors in third baseman Nick Zehner, left fielder Randy Cline and first baseman George Alvarado. A deep class of five sophomores adds to the lineup in center fielder NIck Pritz, right fielder Chris Zehner and infielders Cody Hanson and Shawn Russell.
So far so good on the defensive side, says Elliott, but with so little returning varsity experience, hitting is a question mark for the defending Class 2A Sectional 34 champs.
“We’re not looking at it as a down year, it’s just we have had some kids that haven’t started in the past,” said the Culver boss. “We still have some high expectations. It can be a good year if we can kind of shore up some defensive positions, and obviously you’ve got to put the bat on the ball. That’s one of the things we’re working on right now is our hitting and keeping the kids focused and understanding their responsibility. We’ve got to be able to do some more hitting and running and get the bunts down when we need them.”
On the other side of the spectrum is defending Northern Lakes Conference co-champion Plymouth.
A deep senior class of seven players returns in second baseman Dan Smith, catcher Jacob Seagraves, center fielder/ pitcher Chase Peters, pitcher Jordan Scheetz, first baseman/ pitcher Hayden Skirvin, outfielder/ pitcher Cole Mann and short stop Connor Flynn. Junior Joe Knapp returns at third as classmate Ike Kastner takes over in left, and sophomore Blake Milliser moves up to man right field.
“Going into the season, I think from a defensive standpoint we’re pretty good. We’ve got our whole infield back from last year, except for Hayden, who played first when Damon (Howe) pitched, so basically we’ve got our whole infield back,” said Plymouth head coach Tony Plothow. “Our catcher from last year is back and then Chase Peters in center field, so our defense is pretty much there with Knapp, Smith, Flynn, Skirvin, Segraves, Peters, and then Ike Kastner and Blake Milliser are going to look to start in the outfield as the season starts up. I think our defense is going to be a team strength; if people put it into play hopefully we can field it, throw it and catch it.”
While the Pilgrims boast an experienced defensive lineup, pitching could be a little iffy this year. Scheetz brings back valuable experience on the mound, while Peters and Skirvin each have a little as well, but it could take awhile for Plymouth to find a reliable rotation.
“As a coaching staff we’re really focused on what we can do on the mound. We’re hoping with the senior experience and everything else that we have with these guys that are pretty experienced, that they can get us off to a pretty good start, and then if we can find a rotation, I think we can have a pretty good season,” Plothow said.
“I hope some of these kids learned from last year with Jordan and Richie Luva. Those kids weren’t overpowering, they just hit spots and we made plays behind them. That’s what we’ve got to have this year. We can’t lose the freebie game; we can’t have walks, hit batsmen and make errors. That’s one thing we need to make sure of. If we can hit spots then hopefully they’ll hit it at us. That’s what we’re looking for this season, somebody who can come in and hit the spots they want to hit.”
John Glenn is finding itself in a similar situation this season. The reigning repeat Northern State Conference titleholders have plenty of experience, but not much of it is on the mound.
Three seniors return with the Falcons in outfielder/ third baseman Tom Knape, catcher Charlie Dreessen and third baseman Jon Stewart, while fellow upperclassman Josh Anderson joins the squad this year. Five juniors return in pitcher/ infielder Kyle Liedtky, pitcher/ outfielder Tyler Niespondziany, pitcher Michael Holderread and pitcher/ short stop Mark Einhorn, while two other juniors enter the mix in first baseman Cole Kaser and outfielder Ryan Price. Sophomore pitcher Justin Gierlowski is back as well to help fill out the Glenn bullpen.
“I think everything is going to swing on our pitching staff,” said Glenn head coach John Nadolny. “We don’t have a senior pitcher. The six kids that we have have a limited amount of innings pitched, so our whole season swings on how well these guys throw. There are five juniors and a sophomore. I wouldn’t say it was a weakness, but we’ll see how things pan out here in the next couple weeks as they get on the mound and throw. Einhorn had 37 innings for us last year and had a couple wins for us, and then Kyle Liedtky and Justin Gerlowski both have 14. After that, none of the three have a varsity inning yet, so if we’re going to win, they have to pitch and we have to throw some defense out there behind them.”
The good news is that the Falcons’ batting order should be able to hang with teams even if the pitching isn’t there on a given night.
Knape, Dreesen, Gerlowski and Stewart all look good at the top of the order, while Anderson brings both speed and power to the table.
“I think another one of our strengths could be our offense,” said Nadolny. “Our first six guys have a lot of varsity at-bats, and Josh Anderson coming into the fold this year gives us a premier athlete that can run and… he’s a nice kid to have that we can throw in with the rest of the group.
“We feel like we can score some runs on some people. That’s kind of what will have to happen if our pitching staff doesn’t rise up and throw around the plate.”
Also looking to be in NSC contention this year is Bremen. The Lions have all but one starter back from last season and a veteran roster that features four seniors in pitcher Nate Leeper, short stop Sean Knepper, catcher Tyler Johnson and pitcher Austin Garder as well as incoming senior Ben Coxey at third base. Juniors Bobby Cornett and Wes Burkholder are back in left and right, respectively, while classmate Dillon Mullen is back at closer and DH. Two talented sophomores return in 2011 All-NSC Honorable Mention picks Tyler Coffel and Jacob Bennit at first and second, respectively, while Eric Knepper returns to center.
“We only have one position where we really have a new guy in it and that’s a senior, so that’s going to be one of our strengths,” said Bremen head coach Bo Hundt. “Our biggest strength is our defense and our ability to put the ball in play. We’re going to be able to score some runs and avoid giving up a lot of big innings.”
But while Bremen’s veteran lineup looks good on paper, Hundt is trying to keep his players grounded this year.
“We know we have a lot of good guys returning, and no matter what it looks like on paper, it’s what you do between the lines when you get out there,” he said. “That’s the most important thing is playing every game like there’s no tomorrow. Playing aggressively every single pitch, every single inning, every single game.”