When Westerville South High School baseball coach Tim Bates decided to play his freshmen and sophomores at the varsity level over the past two years, he realized his team might struggle but hoped it eventually would benefit from the move.
Bates and his players hope that strategy will pay dividends this season.
"Last year we played with so many sophomores and freshmen," said Bates, who is in his 10th season. "They were inexperienced and to be inexperienced and to play in the (OCC-) Cardinal Division is not good ingredients for your soup. This year with them being experienced, one year through the league, playing together in the summertime, and they had success."
After losing just one regular starter from last season to graduation in Jayson Perkins (OF/P), who was special mention all-league, the Wildcats believe they are ready to contend for the OCC-Cardinal title.
Last season, the Wildcats finished 7-19 overall after losing to second-seeded Olentangy Orange 12-1 in five innings in the second round of the Division I district tournament.
South had a first-round bye.
The Wildcats went 0-14 in the OCC-Cardinal, finishing behind Olentangy (10-4), Dublin Jerome (9-5), Marysville (8-5), Westerville North (8-6), Westerville Central (7-7), Olentangy Liberty (7-7) and Dublin Scioto (6-7).
Hilliard Bradley, Hilliard Darby and Worthington Kilbourne have replaced Liberty, Marysville and Olentangy in the league.
South opened March 30 by splitting a pair of games against Buckeye Valley, winning 11-1 in six innings and losing 14-6. Its league opener is Monday, April 8, against visiting Kilbourne.
Junior Tim Bates (SS), the coach's son, was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district last season after batting .349 with 10 RBI.
Senior Taylor Zachary (C/P) was honorable mention all-league.
Junior Jack Michael (RF/P) and sophomore Vincent Murdock (1B/3B/P) each had 14 RBI.
On the mound, senior Jake Robinson (P/3B) and junior Patrick Orr (P/2B) each had two wins.
"I think it's going to be a good year for us," Robinson said. "We have almost our whole team returning. We're a lot older. We want to win the OCC this year. We definitely think it's possible."
Coach Bates expects senior Jeremy Wei to emerge as the team's ace.
Other returnees are senior Connor Horan (1B) and juniors Tom Ingledue (CF) and Josh Tischler (LF).
Other players are seniors Kyle Curtis (OF), Mychal Culpepper (OF) and Eric McCrate (1B) and juniors Dalton Akers (DH) and Mike Thesing (3B/P).
"We want to go into the last two games of the season with a chance to win the league," coach Bates said.
Central eyes continued postseason success
Central is looking for its third consecutive Division I district final appearance.
Last season, the Warhawks finished 17-12 overall after losing to Thomas Worthington 5-0 in a district final.
In 2011, Central won its first district title and advanced to a regional final before losing to Grove City 10-3 to finish 24-8.
"This team is aware of the tradition we've built in the last couple of years," sixth-year coach Jeff Keifer said. "They're excited to try and maintain that and they want to get back there, too."
Central opened March 30 by losing 8-0 and 4-3 to Olentangy. Its OCC-Cardinal opener is Monday, April 8, at Scioto.
The Warhawks return six players who saw limited playing time last season in seniors Sawyer Allen (C/P/INF), Tyler Bertelsen (P/OF), Nick Conkins (P/INF), Anthony Kinkel (INF), Bobby Spiers (CF) and Joe Swisher (P/SS).
"I believe our team has the capability of (reaching another district final) with the leadership we have and the hard work ethic of all of our players," Allen said.
Sophomore Nick Buchanan (P/INF/OF) was promoted to varsity during the district tournament last season and is expected to contribute this spring.
Keifer expects Bertelsen, Conkins, Swisher and Buchanan to be the top pitchers.
Other players are juniors Austin Bleiweiss (OF), Eric Briggs (INF/P/C), Nick Cellars (P/INF), Mark Peters (P/OF), Kyle Ulliman (OF/P), Mason Wamsley (INF/P) and Daniel Yerina (OF/P) and sophomore Austin Kondratick (C/INF).
The Warhawks lost 11 players from a year ago to graduation, including first-team all-district selection Connor Sitz (P/1B), who was the Player of the Year in the league after going 8-2 with a 2.19 ERA and batting .357 with 16 RBI. He now is playing at Ohio University.
"We look really solid," Keifer said. "It is kind of what we expected. We really don't have the big dominant horse that we've had in the past ... but collectively we may be really as solid from top to bottom as some of those teams."
Coach says North returns solid group
North opened March 30 by sweeping a doubleheader from Granville, winning 5-4 and 10-9 in nine innings. It begins OCC-Central play Monday, April 8, against visiting Darby.
Last season, North finished 15-10. After a first-round bye in the Division I district tournament, the Warriors lost to St. Charles 3-2 in the second round.
"I like what we have coming back," fourth-year coach Sean Ring said. "We have a lot of position guys coming back, so I like where our offense is sitting."
Senior Kevin Hackett (OF) was second-team all-league last year.
"We lost a lot of people, but we have a lot of young talent," he said. "From bottom to top, we're probably about the same this year as we were last year minus a few good pitchers."
Senior Michael Cooper (1B/3B) batted .364 with 11 RBI and was special mention all-league last year, and junior Ryan Curtis (C/P/utility) batted .312.
Also back are senior Dan Funk (P/utility) and senior Davon Harris (INF/P).
Ring expects seniors Joey Burnheimer (P), Nick Iannarino (P) and Zach Ledford (C), all first-year varsity players, to be solid contributors.
Other players are senior Grant Bruce (OF), juniors Michael Dillmore (P/OF), Josh Kovacs (P/1B), Joe Riehl (OF/P), Andrew Simmerman (utility) and Lofton Stephens (SS/2B) and sophomore Joe Beekman (OF).
North lost 10 players from last year to graduation, including Jake Miller (P/OF), who was first-team all-league and all-district and now is playing at Ohio University. He was 7-3 with a 1.44 ERA in 68 innings and led the team in batting average (.373), runs (19) and RBI (16) and hit the team's two home runs.
"With every good class that leaves, opportunities present themselves," Ring said. "We lost 10 seniors last year, so now we have young guys that can fill their shoes. I enjoy coaching the younger players because you can really work with them. They listen and you see them develop really quick because of their opportunity."