Hilliard Davidson High School baseball coach Justin Swallie is counting on a solid pitching staff and strength up the middle in his first season leading the team.
Swallie was an assistant coach the past two seasons under coach Jim Dougherty, who retired after directing the program for 32 seasons.
The Wildcats, who opened March 31 with a 5-2 win over Grove City at Chillicothe Paint Stadium, return three of their top pitchers from a year ago in seniors Travis Brown (6.83 ERA, 27 strikeouts, 27 2/3 innings), Robbie Gilliland (5.07 ERA, 16 strikeouts, 31 1/3 innings) and Luke Smith (5.50 ERA, 31 strikeouts, 28 innings).
Also back on the mound is junior Clayton Steele (8.25 ERA, 16 strikeouts, 24 1/3 innings).
"I think our strength is returning three of our top four pitchers and a lot of our seniors started as juniors, which is nice," Swallie said. "They were on the field last year when we finished strong. It's nice to have guys who have been out there before and know what to expect."
Last season, Davidson finished 14-15 overall and went 6-8 in the OCC-Central Division to place sixth behind champion Thomas Worthington (11-3).
The Wildcats won four of their final six games a year ago, including two games in the Division I district tournament.
Senior J.B. Miles (.317 batting average, 11 RBI) is back at second base and senior Nick Stull (.290, 17 runs, 11 RBI) returns at shortstop. Senior Nick Iske (.352, 12 runs) was special mention all-league a year ago at catcher, but also is expected to see playing time at first base and in the outfield.
Smith will play first base when not on the mound and Iske, senior Jared Johns and Nathan Ellis are competing for playing time at third base. Senior Reed Harster will play center field, with Brown, Iske and juniors Bobby Lively and Brent Thomas all expected to see playing time in the outfield. Junior Patrick Lavelle is expected to see time at catcher.
Rounding out the roster are juniors Blake Eckert (INF/P) and Charlie Tighe (P/INF).
"This has been a hard-working group and they have done well adjusting to a new coach," said Swallie, whose team opened with a 5-2 victory over Grove City on March 31 at Chillicothe. "They have responded to what we have wanted from them, and that has been program-wide. It's nice to see them buying into the program."
The Wildcats open OCC-Central play Monday, April 7, at home against Dublin Coffman.
"Our league is tough and we have a tough non-conference schedule," Swallie said. "If we make little mistakes, it can come back to bite us, so we have to take care of the little things."
Panthers looking to seniors for boost
Darby lost much of its firepower from last season, when it finished 20-11 overall, went 11-3 in the OCC-Cardinal to place second to Dublin Jerome (12-2) and won its first district title since 2008 before losing to Gahanna 8-1 in a Division I regional final.
The Panthers, who opened April 2 against Pickerington North at Chillicothe Paint Stadium, lost 13 players from a year ago to graduation and return only three starters in seniors Nate Green (P/1B), Hunter McSweeney (OF) and Eric Norton (P/3B).
Green has signed with Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Last season, he batted .411 with a .446 on-base percentage, three home runs, 37 RBI, 20 runs and 12 doubles and was 9-0 on the mound with a 1.91 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings. He was named first-team all-league a year ago.
McSweeney (.274, 12 runs, 10 RBI, 8 stolen bases) has moved to the outfield from third base and Norton was 3-2 on the mound with one save and a 5.25 ERA in 24 innings last season.
"We lost the majority of our lineup, but the guys had some good experiences last year," 17th-year coach Chris Fugitt said. "Those three (Green, McSweeney and Norton) and the rest of the seniors will lead the way for us."
Rounding out the senior class are Reid Hollinger (P/INF), Andrew Imwallie (P/OF), Kyle Rogers (P/INF), Christian Stiffler (INF) and John Wells (P/INF).
Junior Josh Snyder and sophomores Joe Estepp and Topher Schultz are expected to see playing time at catcher, Green, Hollinger, Stiffler and junior Zack Donatelli are competing for time at first base and Rogers and junior Cameron Kean are vying for time at second base. Junior Scott Nadler and Kean are expected to see time at shortstop and Norton, Kean and sophomore Luke Miller are expected to see time at third.
Others competing for playing time in the outfield are juniors Trevor Cox and Kenny Hurley and sophomore Greg Brown.
Others expected to see time on the mound are juniors Brett Hay and Josh Palsgrove.
"We have a bunch of new faces who have some good skills and there is a lot of competition at each position, so the kids have to perform," Fugitt said. "We have good pieces to the puzzle. We just have to figure out where to put these pieces."
Darby begins OCC-Cardinal play Monday, April 7, at home against Westerville North.
Jaguars driven by competition
Bradley returns five starters from last season, when it finished 11-15 overall and 5-9 in the OCC-Cardinal to place sixth.
Sophomore catcher Cameron Duke tops the list of returnees after batting .355 with 13 runs and 19 RBI last year and making second-team all-league. The team's only senior, pitcher Zach Daylong was 3-3 with a 2.49 ERA in 53 1/3 innings last season and was honorable mention all-league.
Also back are juniors Drew Haynes (3B; .280, 13 runs, 4 RBI), Nick Jenkins (1B/C) and Preston Rapp (SS/OF; .282, 15 runs, 10 RBI).
Bradley opened March 31 with a 3-0 victory over visiting Medina Buckeye.
"I really like our depth and we have a lot of guys competing for jobs," fifth-year coach Matt Gilkerson said. "I'm not sure what the starting lineup will be when we open because we have a lot of good players fighting for positions."
Rounding out the roster are juniors Brock DuPont (P/OF), Dalton Hatfield (OF), Jacob Lehman (1B), Warren Mounts (OF) and Micah Tawney (P) and sophomores Connor Davis (P/OF), Andy Goins (INF/P), Justin Lemmerman (SS/2B), Andrew Medley (P/1B) and Stephen Nikolaus (SS/2B).
"The learning curve may be high because we have a lot of kids who are making the jump from freshmen to varsity after missing the j.v. level," Gilkerson said.
"The game speeds up so much. It's different playing against 15-year-olds than it is against 18-year-olds."
The Jaguars open OCC-Cardinal play Monday, April 7, at home against Jerome.
"We're really excited and have a chance to be a good baseball team," Gilkerson said.