The goals for the Thomas Worthington High School baseball team can't get much higher than they are this season.
That's why 16th-year coach Stephen Gussler wants his players to stay focused.
"This one of the best teams I have had on paper, but I remind the players we have to earn it on the field," he said. "I am looking forward to another great season with a deep playoff run. We want to be the OCC-Central (Division) champions, district champions and regional champions, to reach the state final four."
Thomas opened March 30 in Bowie, Md., sweeping McLean (Va.) Potomac School in a doubleheader, 14-2 and 10-0 in five innings.
Last season, the Cardinals finished 22-8 overall, won their first league title since 2007 and captured their first district championship since 1981 before losing to Olentangy Orange 7-6 in a Division I regional semifinal.
Among the strengths for Thomas should be its pitching staff. Junior Nick Pauley and senior left-hander Roscoe Blackburn are expected to occupy the top two spots in the rotation, with senior Ben Miller and junior left-hander Sam Ankrom also expected to be key contributors on the mound.
Last year, Pauley was 9-0 with a 1.54 ERA and was named first-team all-district and first-team all-league. He is expected to be the team's designated hitter when he's not on the mound and, according to Gussler, is a Division I college prospect.
Blackburn, who will play center field when not pitching and was 12-for-13 on stolen base attempts last year, has received a scholarship offer from Ashland University. Miller, who will be the starting shortstop when not on the mound, had a 2.92 ERA with seven saves and batted .301 last year and was second-team all-league.
"We have a tremendous pitching staff with a great 1-2 with Pauley and Blackburn," Gussler said. "So far this spring, we have moved the ball well offensively and plan on being aggressive on the bases as well. I expect our defense to be very solid."
Other key players include seniors Nick Highley (RF), Emerson Keppler (LF) and Sean Lima (2B) and juniors Kegan Lanter (C) and Tommy Pischel (SS/3B). Keppler has committed to the University of Mount Union in Alliance.
Last season, Highley had 13 RBI and was special mention all-league and Lima batted .417 with 12 RBI.
Also vying for playing time are seniors Scott Brown (P), Adam Harrison (P) and Joe Horton (DH), juniors Danny Gordon (C) and Tommy Hoerauf (P/1B) and sophomores Jace Komminsk (C/INF) and Brady Roesch (P/1B).
Thomas went 11-3 in the OCC-Central last year to finish ahead of Hilliard Darby (10-4), Kilbourne (8-6), Upper Arlington (8-6), Dublin Coffman (7-7), Hilliard Davidson (7-7), Central Crossing (2-11) and Westland (2-11). Central Crossing and Westland did not complete a league game.
Kilbourne and Darby moved to the OCC-Cardinal as part of OCC realignment and were replaced by Marysville and Olentangy Liberty.
"I expect Marysville, Olentangy Liberty and Dublin Coffman will be among the top teams in our conference," said Gussler, whose team opens league play Monday, April 8, at Upper Arlington. "I think it's a pretty tough conference and will prepare us for the tournament, and that's what we want."
Seeded fourth in the district last season, Thomas had a first-round bye and defeated Watkins Memorial 2-0 in the second round, Marysville 4-2 in a district semifinal and 12th-seeded Westerville Central 5-0 in a district final.
The Cardinals then lost to Orange, which ended the game with a three-run home run by Brai Beckel in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Wolves coach likes team's potential
Fourth-year Kilbourne coach Jeff Boulware sees a lot of potential in his team's younger, unproven players.
"We've got a good group of young players and a few proven players," he said. "They enjoy baseball and have been working real hard to prepare for the season. "We have quite a few young players, so there will be plenty of opportunities to learn, but we are very excited about where we think this group can be by early May. We are excited about this season."
Kilbourne, which finished 13-11 overall last season, opened April 2 against Marysville.
The Wolves' top returnee is senior Brian Sommers (P/2B/3B), who was 5-1 with a program-record 1.43 ERA and hit .400 with 13 RBI last year and was named first-team all-league and second-team all-district.
Senior Danny Dutko (P/LF) and junior Charlie Foster (P/1B) also are expected to be key contributors on the mound. Dutko is a left-hander.
Other key players include seniors Ben Lawson (RF) and Ben Paulin (2B), junior Hayden Shenefield (SS) and sophomore Mason Rigio (1B). Last season, Paulin hit .345 and Shenefield batted .333 with 13 RBI and made special mention all-league.
Others expected to be key contributors include senior Cameron Gall (OF), juniors Ethan Myers (DH/OF), Kerry Speed (P) and T.J. Valentino (utility) and sophomores Luke Hackathorne (1B), Wes Hickman (C) and Daniel Zavatsky (P/3B).
"Our assets will be defense and speed," Boulware said. "We've got quite a lot of new faces in the lineup and will need to manufacture runs offensively with stolen bases and being aggressive on the base paths."
Kilbourne expected to have pitcher Jacob Niggemeyer back, but he transferred to Liberty. The junior, who has verbally committed to Ohio State, was 3-4 with a 1.65 ERA last season and made second team all-league.
The Wolves went 8-6 in the OCC-Central last year to tie Upper Arlington for third but are in the OCC-Cardinal this season along with Darby, Hilliard Bradley, Dublin Jerome, Dublin Scioto, Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South.
Kilbourne begins league play Monday, April 8, at Westerville South.
"Jerome has tons of returning talent, including two top pitchers," Boulware said. "Darby returns loads of experience. Westerville Central was a district runner-up last year and Westerville South has good pitching and returning experience.
"All these teams are so well-coached and prepared. It is going to be quite a challenge."
Kilbourne had a bye in the first round of the Division I district tournament last year and defeated Bradley 6-1 in the second round before losing to top-seeded Grove City 5-3 in a district semifinal.
"Our goals every year are to win 20 games and win an OCC championship and district title," Boulware said. "We have these goals each year and they won't change."