From left, Drew Staczek, Bryce Pratt, Kyle Miazgowicz, and Stephen Johnson help make Cardinal Stritch the preseason favorite to win the Toledo Area Athletic Conference this spring. THE BLADE/LORI KING
With seven starters plus four other letter winners returning from a team that won the Toledo Area Athletic Conference baseball championship last season, Cardinal Stritch is the preseason choice of conference coaches to repeat its title this year.
First-year Cardinals coach Alex Timofeev takes over the reins from former coach Craig Meinzer, who built Stritch into a winner in his five seasons, The Cards also won a TAAC crown in 2013.
Stritch (17-9, 12-2 TAAC) received five of the eight first-place votes and 58 points in a poll of TAAC coaches to earn the favorite’s label for 2017. Perennial conference power Ottawa Hills (18-10, 11-3) picked up one first-place vote and was voted second with 53 points, Gibsonburg (17-7, 9-5) got a first-place nod and was third at 48, and Toledo Christian (12-14, 8-6) grabbed the other first-place vote and was fourth at 44.
Danbury, Emmanuel Christian, Northwood, and Maumee Valley rounded out the poll voting, in that order.
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Cardinal Stritch will have to overcome the graduation void left by Jude Neary (.386 average), who was the TAAC player of the year last season, plus two other first team all-conference pitchers — Grant Curavo and Sean Killian.
Back to lead the Cardinals’ repeat aspirations are seniors Stephen Johnson (outfield-first base, .355, 4-1 pitching), Kyle Miazgowicz (third base), Drew Staczek (shortstop), and Bryce Pratt (OF-1B), and juniors Joey Paternel (catcher-third base, .333), Matt Payeff (OF, .329), Jeff Dunsmore (2B, .319), and Andrew Flowers (SS-OF, .308).
Johnson and Peternel were each second team All-TAAC selections in 2016.
Juniors Nick Staler (OF), Jerrett Cousino (1B-3B), and Connor Vidra (OF) will also be in the mix.
“We are a blue-collar team that is determined, motivated, and driven to succeed,” Timofeev said.
Ottawa Hills will provide a strong challenge in the title chase with its nine returning starters and four additional letter winners.
The Green Bears will be led by seniors Dom Adduci (infield-P, .309), Tyler Gargas (IF-P, 5-3), and Riley East (P, 5-1, 2.83 ERA), and juniors Ben Werner (IF, .392) and Jack Werner (IF-P, .337, 6-3, 2.50 ERA).
Ben Werner was a first team All- TAAC pick last year, and Adduci and Gargas were named to the second team last season.
Guiding the Green Bears again will be the dean of area coaches, Chris Hardman, who is in his 37th season, a run that has included seven trips to the state’s final four, with a state championship in 1986, plus runner-up finishes in 1992, 1996 and 2001.
“We are working hard to go from good to great,” said an optimistic Hardman.
Gibsonburg and 13th-year coach Kyle Rase will look to their five returning starters to make a run at the TAAC crown.
Back for the Golden Bears are seniors Ryan Clark (P-IF), Madison Jaso (P-IF, .353), and Bryce Mendoza (2B), junior Moses Sanson (P-utility. 327), and sophomore Fred Sisco (P-OF, .313, 3-0).
“Our success this season will be determined by how quickly we can solidify the open positions from last year,” said Rase, who like Hardman has also guided a state championship team (2005). “We have a good group of players returning, and a lot of talented underclassmen that will have opportunities to contribute.”
Toledo Christian looks poised to bounce back into title contention this season with six starters back for fourth-year coach Tab Greenlee.
Leading the Eagles will be seniors Matt Schad (center field-P, .305) and Noah Laughlin (1B-P, .327), juniors Owen Gast (CF-P, .385), Landon McGill (P-SS, .415), and Nate Draper (3B-P, .422), and sophomore Gage McCammon (C, .333).
Draper was a first-team All-TAAC pick, and McGill was all-conference second team.
“We were young last year and learning to play together,” Greenlee said. “We will be strong, offensively and defensively, and will be wise with our pitching staff in hopes of reaching our goals as a team. I am very excited to see this team grow.”
Danbury (12-12, 5-9) looks to make a charge at the upper half of the TAAC standings behind returning senior letter winners Bryce Loeckel (P-3B, .441), Sam Tyson (SS), Jared Koenig (OF-P-2B, .300), and Jake Internicola (C).
Juniors Logan Kenley (1B-DH), Brody Loeckel (P-3B), Ryan Novotney (P-OF), and Cade Wilhite (2B-OF) will also contribute.
Bryce Loeckel was the TAAC batting champion, and he was named second team all-conference.
“Our players are looking forward to making memories that should last a lifetime,” seventh-year coach Adam Steinbrick said.
“Our strengths include experience, depth, team leaderships, and camaraderie. We should be right in the mix.”
Emmanuel Christian (4-14, 2-12) is hopeful for improvement in the TAAC standings, with five starters returning for first-year coach Rick Morris.
Back for the Warriors are seniors Zachary Horlick (P-2B-3B) and Braden Plenzler (C-2B-OF) and juniors Gunnar Parmalee (P-CF), Tyler Horlick (OF), and Jake Dyk (P-1B).
“We lack depth and experience, and we are focused on rebuilding,” Morris said. “This team is fearless and determined to change the culture and be competitive in every game.”
Northwood (2-21, 2-12) struggled mightily in 2016, and it is hoping for significant improvement this season with eight starters returning for first-year coach Rex Groll.
Back to lead the Rangers’ rebuilding project are seniors Evan LaPlante (SS-P), Christian Vickers (CF), Ethan Barnes (3B-1B-P), and Brad Meeks (OF-P), juniors Gabe LaPlante (P-utility), Tim Romstadt (C), and Tyler Lindhorst (2B-P), and sophomore Noah Cornielson (1B-OF-P).
“I believe we have a great balance of veteran leaderships and strong newcomers that are eager to learn and develop,” Groll said. “This is a motivated group, and they are no strangers to hard work.”
Maumee Valley begins play in the TAAC under coach Tim Mathews, who will look to senior Iain Todd, juniors Alex Todd and Bailey Hannan, and sophomores Nick Zeller, Collin Boissoneault, and Newt Ziegler to provide the competitive core of the team during the season.
“This is an exciting year for our baseball program,” Mathews said. “It will be the first year having a varsity baseball team playing a full varsity schedule. Our coaching staff has a goal to develop skills and motivate growth. As a team, we will measure success by improvement, not by wins and losses.”