Senior pitchers Mick Stakely and Dalton Golden should have a comfortable feeling when taking the mound for the Licking Heights High School baseball team, which last spring captured its first league title since 1989.

Senior pitchers Mick Stakely and Dalton Golden should have a comfortable feeling when taking the mound for the Licking Heights High School baseball team, which last spring captured its first league title since 1989.

That's because the Hornets, who finished 16-5 overall with a 4-2 loss to Bexley in their postseason opener in the second round of the Division II district tournament, return four of their five starting infielders, including senior catcher Zak Scott. The others are juniors Ronnie Dawson (2B), Jake Foley (SS) and Andrew Bailey (3B).

"We've got several kids back in the same spots," said coach Jeff Boyer, whose 32nd season begins when his team opens Monday, March 26, at East Knox. "Nine of our 14 players lettered last year and that gives us a lot of continuity."

Stakely and Golden are expected to be the top two starters in a rotation that also will include senior left-hander Zack Dunbrack, who also will play center field now that Ty Stallings has graduated. Stakely went 7-1 last spring as part of a strong one-two punch that also featured 2011 graduate Josh Hoar, who went 5-1 with a save. First baseman Graham Jonker also graduated, and Golden is expected to fill that infield spot.

The fifth senior is Tyler Stemen, a utility player who hasn't played since his sophomore year. Junior Tyler Sims can play any position except first base and catcher, Boyer said, and that gives the coach additional flexibility as his team attempts to defend its MSL-Cardinal Division title.

The Hornets went 12-2 in the league a year ago to finish first ahead of Liberty Union (11-3), West Jefferson (10-4), Berne Union (8-6), Fisher Catholic (8-6), Grandview (5-9), Harvest Prep (2-12) and Millersport (0-14). Stakely and Hoar made first-team all-league while Stallings, Scott and Dunbrack made second team and Jonker was honorable mention. The MSL-Cardinal opener is Friday, March 30, at home against Harvest Prep.

"I'm telling the guys it's a lot harder being the hunted rather than the hunters," Boyer said. "We'll see how it goes.

"This has been a nice team to coach so far, though. Certain teams have talent, and this one does, but it's also a very likeable group. The guys really seem to enjoy playing baseball together."

The roster also features juniors Andrew Giffin (P) and Steven Clum (OF/P) and sophomores Luke Langkamp (P), Chuck Aitken (OF) and Jacob Brandwein (1B/P).

Boyer has strengthened his non-league schedule by adding a game April 26 at Westerville North, a Division I program, and another at home May 2 against Columbus Academy, an MSL-Ohio contender that the Hornets did not play last spring. The final weekend of the regular season includes a home game May 5 against Fairfield Christian as Boyer tries to bridge a gap that last season might have cost Licking Heights a postseason victory against Bexley, which the Hornets had defeated 3-2 earlier in the spring.

The Hornets have won at least 16 games in three of the past four seasons, but they haven't advanced to a district semifinal since 2006 in Division III.

"I think not playing that last weekend really hurt us in the tournament last year," said Boyer, whose team also scrimmaged Grove City, which advanced to last year's Division I state tournament. "Fairfield Christian, they've done really well athletically, and the football team there made the playoffs a few years ago (in 2010).

"We have a lot of things in place. We have a lot of flexibility and a lot of depth. We'll see where it takes us. Hopefully, we'll go another step."

The boys volleyball team opens the season and Central Ohio Volleyball League schedule Tuesday, March 27, at DeSales.

The Hornets finished 1-15 overall last spring with a 25-7, 25-12, 25-14 loss to St. Charles in the first round of the Division II East Region tournament.

The Cardinals, who later advanced to a state semifinal for the second consecutive year, also went 10-0 to finish first in the COVL ahead of Watterson (8-2), Whetstone (5-5), DeSales (4-6), Gahanna Christian Academy (2-8) and the Hornets (1-9). Gahanna Christian does not have a team this spring and Mount Vernon Academy has taken its place in the league, fourth-year Licking Heights coach Doug Mattison said.

The Hornets graduated three players in 2011, including setter Kyle Herb. He made honorable mention all-region, was a three-year starter and played on the school's original team in 2009. Their top returnee is Ilija Necovski, a 6-foot-3 senior who is the program's first four-year player.

Also returning are juniors Brandon Wallace, Dakota Gibson and Kevin Coates and sophomores Michael Martinez and Michael Stemen. The roster is rounded out by junior Chris Olson, sophomores Andrew Prater and Gary Shuster and freshmen Alex Olson, Jacob Kissel and Nick Campbell.

"Positions are not truly set; it is a work in progress," Mattison said. "What we do have is quite a few boys this year compared to some past years, so we will have a varsity and (junior varsity) squad."

•The boys and girls track and field teams opened March 24 with the home Hornet Relays. The squads next compete Saturday, March 31, in the Newark Invitational.