The Pickerington American Legion Post 283 baseball team won its first state championship and set a program record for victories last season.
Having returned eight players from a year ago when it finished 56-6, Post 283 has hopes for a similar season this summer.
"There's always pressure to equal the success of the previous season, but that will be difficult to do," said infielder and pitcher Chris Angle, a 2012 Canal Winchester High School graduate and one of the returnees.
"We won our first (15) games last year and just had a record season. We lost our (third) game this year (12-5 to Troy Post 43 on May 28) against a team we mercy-ruled in the state championship last year.
"But I do think we have the talent and ability to get things done again. We just need to jell."
The loss to Post 43 could be an aberration considering Post 283 had just nine players available for the game. Pickerington was 14-2 after going 3-1 in the Hillbilly Hardball Classic held June 14-16 in Elkins, W.Va.
Post 283 is scheduled to play 49 regular-season games, not including additional games in pool play or round-robin tournaments.
"I've learned that arms and athletes are the keys to having a successful team," said eighth-year coach Chris Weber, who entered the season with a 282-68 record.
"That's what college coaches and scouts are seeking and that's the way I go about putting a team together. Of the 18 guys on the roster, there are maybe four who won't pitch. But when you play a schedule like we do, we'll need them all at some point."
In addition to Angle, Pickerington Central's Devon Fisk, Pickerington North's Kyle Montell, Canal Winchester's Isaac Pifer and Watkins Memorial products Jordan Miller, Charlie Schmidt, Dan Sexton and Tony Winters have returned.
Weber expects Montell, Pifer, Schmidt, Sexton, Winters and North's Jake Edwards to be key contributors on the mound.
The rest of the roster consists of Watkins Memorial's Steve Asbury, Doug Connor, Derek Helbing and Will VanHoose, Central's Zach Vandemark, North's Jordan Grubb, Bloom-Carroll's Scott Baker, Fairfield Union's Chad Burge and St. Charles' Chris Brake.
Depending on who is pitching, the infield will be a combination of Brake, Burge or Schmidt at shortstop, Brake, Burge or Miller at second base, Asbury, Baker or Grubb at third base, Angle, Asbury, Connor or Sexton at first base and Asbury, Helbing or Vandemark at catcher.
Expected to see time in the outfield are Burge, Fisk, Montell, Pifer, Schmidt and Winters.
"There again, that's what's great about having arms and athletes," Weber said. "We are very flexible because we have athletes. There are so many combinations we can use. Plus, it's a good group of kids who are willing to play any position we ask them to play. Our motto has always been one heartbeat. As long as these kids understand that from the minute they make the team, we're in good shape.
"Our goal is to win the district and return to the regional. We all have the same agenda. Another goal for me is being able to get these kids an opportunity to earn a college education. We take pride in that. If they can better themselves, we're doing our job. If they can play some ball and get a degree, that's an added incentive."
Among the players who are expected to play in college next spring are 2013 graduates Fisk (Bowling Green), Miller (Muskingum), Montell (Tiffin), Sexton (Tiffin) and Winters (Ohio University).
Last season, Post 283 won the District 8 title for the second year in a row, fourth time in the past five years and ninth time overall. Its state championship was just the second won by a team from District 8.
Prior to this season, Ohio American Legion Baseball widened the boundaries of its regions (formerly called districts) in an effort to encompass more teams in areas with fewer Legion teams. There were 12 districts in the state last year, but there now are eight regions and Pickerington is in Region 6.
Also in Region 6 are Athens Post 21, Lancaster Post 11, Logan Post 78 and Pomeroy Post 39. The Region 6 tournament will be played July 14-17, followed by the state tournament July 29-Aug. 2 at Beavers Field in Lancaster.
The new boundaries have changed the state tournament format. Instead of 12 teams advancing and playing in a 23-game, double-elimination event, there will be eight teams competing in a 15-game double-elimination event.
"Some districts had two teams, meaning they played one game to get to state," Weber said. "Whether the winner was a good team or not, it's really not the same as winning a 6- to 8-team tournament to earn your way there."
Last season, Post 283 opened the state tournament with a 6-3 win over Sandusky Post 83 before losing to Steubenville Post 33 5-1 to snap a 16-game winning streak. It bounced back to beat Mount Vernon Post 136 17-7, Whitehouse Post 1 3-1, Post 83 8-5, Lima Post 96 13-1 and Post 43 twice, 11-7 and 17-1, to win the state title.
Pickerington then went 1-2 in the Great Lakes Regional in Midland, Mich., beating the Madison (Wis.) Impact 2-0 before losing to Midland Post 346 1-0 and eventual champion Moline (Ill.) Post 276 5-4 in 12 innings.