Eight letterwinners have returned for the Thomas Worthington High School baseball team as it sets its sights on league and district championships for the third consecutive season.
But for the first time in 17 years, the Cardinals are being directed by someone other than Stephen Gussler, who stepped down as coach after 16 seasons and was replaced by Anthony Leahy, an assistant with the Cardinals the past eight seasons.
Gussler, who is battling stage 4 colon cancer, plans to help the team this season in an unofficial capacity.
"I'll be there for some practices and I plan to be there for most games," said Gussler, who was given nine to 12 months to live in January 2012.
"My (computerized tomography) scans have looked good. There are no detectable signs of cancer right now and I'm no longer going through (chemotherapy), but I am trying to regain some weight, strength and endurance."
Last season, Gussler was named Division I district and state Coach of the Year, as the Cardinals defeated Grove City to win a district championship before losing to Hilliard Darby 15-13 in a regional semifinal. Thomas finished 24-7 overall, setting the program record for victories (the previous record of 23 was set in 2006), and winning the OCC-Central Division title with an 11-3 mark.
"Prior to the past two seasons, we hadn't won a district championship (since 1981)," Leahy said. "The goal now is to win a third straight league championship and build onto this success by advancing further in the postseason."
Thomas opened the season by competing in a tournament at Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The Cardinals won their first three of five games in the event, which concludes Thursday, April 3. They defeated Ashland (Ky.) Boyd County 14-4 and London (Ky.) North Laurel 7-2 on March 30 and Ashland (Ky.) Paul G. Blazer 10-2 on March 31.
The Cardinals have returned two of their top three pitchers from a year ago in seniors Nick Pauley and Sam Ankrom.
Also expected to be on the pitching staff are four other returnees in seniors Tommy Hoerauf and Brady Roesch and juniors Andy Burpee and Jace Komminsk.
Pauley, a Wright State University signee, went 8-2 with a 1.88 ERA in 63 2/3 innings last season and was named first-team all-state, all-district and all-league.
"We have high expectations for Nick Pauley," Leahy said. "He is a three-year starter. Sam Ankrom was our No. 3 pitcher last year and will slide into the second spot. He had several really impressive outings and should also hit in the middle of the (batting) order.
"Hoerauf and Komminsk didn't pitch much last year. Komminsk has a lot of talent and we would like to see him close and hit in the 3-4-5 spots. Last year, he spent time as a DH and catcher and hit in the 7-8-9 range (in the batting order)."
When not on the mound, Ankrom will play right field, Roesch will play first base and Komminsk will see time at third base.
The other returnees are two returning starters in seniors Kegan Lanter (C) and Tommy Pischel (SS). Last year, Lanter hit .288 with 20 runs and 19 RBI and was second-team all- league.
"Pischel played third base last year and moves to shortstop to replace (2013 graduate) Ben Miller, who was a three-year starter," Leahy said. "(Pischel) also will bat leadoff. Lanter has hit in the No. 3 or 4 spot the past two seasons and I have hopes for him to hit over .400."
Also vying for starting positions are seniors Danny Gordon (3B/C) and Anthony Hopkins (CF) and sophomore Jaret Gerber (2B). Hoerauf and Burpee are battling to start in left field when not pitching.
Also expected to see action are seniors Kieran Farrell (OF), John Lee (OF) and Riley Maloney (2B).
In addition to Miller, other key losses from last season to graduation were Roscoe Blackburn (P/OF), Nick Highley (OF) and Emerson Keppler (OF). Miller hit .428 with 27 runs and 37 RBI, Blackburn was 7-1 with a 2.62 ERA in 59 innings and batted .375, and Keppler hit .315 with 31 runs.
Miller was second-team all-state and Blackburn was honorable mention all-state. Both were first-team all-district and Keppler was honorable mention all-district.
Blackburn shared OCC-Central Player of the Year honors with Olentangy Liberty's Jacob Niggemeyer. Miller and Keppler also made first-team all-league and Highley was honorable mention all-league.
Wolves anticipate improved offense
Kilbourne is seeking to add some punch to its lineup this spring after struggling at the plate last season, when it finished 5-20 overall and 3-11 in the OCC-Cardinal.
"Our No. 1 deficiency was producing runs," fifth-year coach Jeff Boulware said. "We think we'll have a solid defense, with experience up the middle, and we think we will be much improved offensively."
The Wolves, who opened March 31 with a 5-1 victory over visiting Westland, have returned three starters in senior Hayden Shenefield (SS/P) and juniors Dominic Brown (CF) and Brian Gevas (LF/P). Another returning starter, sophomore shortstop Drew George, is expected to miss the season after being diagnosed with leukemia last fall.
George was scheduled to undergo a bone marrow transplant this week.
Other returning letterwinners are seniors Ethan Myers (RF/DH), Mason Rigio (P/1B), Kerry Speed (P) and T.J. Valentino (2B/P) and junior Daniel Zavatsky (P/1B).
"Hayden Shenefield and Dominic Brown will be in the middle of the lineup to produce runs as opposed to setting the table as they have in the past," Boulware said. "We are looking for Brian Gevas and Ethan Myers to take that next step and generate some runs offensively as well."
Brown was honorable mention all-league and all-district last season.
Zavatsky and Rigio are expected to be at top of the pitching rotation. Others expected to see time on the mound include Myers, Shenefield, Valentino and sophomore Hyatt Shenefield. The starting catcher is sophomore Colton Hann.
Also on the roster are seniors Danny Darby (OF) and Cale Walker (C/1B), juniors Justin Souder (P/3B) and Chris Welter (OF), sophomore Jacob Streets (C/P/3B) and freshman Dominic Frengel (1B/C/P).
"Pitching is a bit of an unknown with only Hayden Shenefield, Valentino and Rigio logging significant varsity innings (last season)," Boulware said. "We'll have to see who steps into that role of weekday league starter and puts us in position to win consistently.
"Defensively, we've got a lot of new faces in new places. Hann has earned the starting catcher's position and is an incredibly hard worker. Up the middle, we have experience with Hayden at shortstop, Valentino at second and Brown in center field. Hyatt Shenefield will be learning a new position at third and Gevas is back in left field."
Kilbourne has moved to the OCC-Capital with Big Walnut, Delaware, Franklin Heights, Mount Vernon, New Albany, Olentangy and Olentangy Orange. It begins league play Monday, April 7, at Delaware.