A new era began for the Hilliard Darby High School baseball program March 23 when it defeated host Wheelersburg 6-5.

It marked the first time the Panthers were coached by anyone other than Chris Fugitt, who stepped down after 21 seasons shortly after Darby concluded last season with a 5-4 loss to Olentangy in a Division I district final.

First-year coach Mike Weer, who was an assistant the past 12 seasons, said he wants to keep the same approach that helped the Panthers reach a district final each of the past four seasons and win their fourth consecutive league title last spring.

Darby finished 21-8 overall and 9-3 in the OCC-Cardinal Division last season.

"We like to play the simple game at Darby," Weer said. "Pitchers throw strikes, on defense we make the routine play and offensively we just find a way to put the ball in play. Doing those three things will give us the chance to win every day."

Darby was 3-2 before playing at Davidson on April 2 and begins its quest for a fifth consecutive league title Monday, April 8, at home against Delaware.

The Panthers went 2-2 on their annual spring-break trip to Tennessee, beating Bowling Green (Kentucky) Warren East 6-4 on March 26 and Shelbyville (Tennessee) Central 4-1 on March 28 before losing to Lebanon (Tennessee) Friendship Christian 5-4 and Collierville (Tennessee) 6-4 on March 29.

Darby is expected to be led by seniors Mason Bowers (LF/P), Ryan Eatherton (C), Grant Hollinger (DH/C) and Drew Snyder (2B) and junior Jacob Wells (P).

"Grant batted .351 with nine RBI last year and is powerful in the middle of the order," Weer said. "Mason batted .322 with 13 RBI and he is a line-drive hitter with good speed. Drew batted .304 and is an excellent middle infielder and Ryan has thrown out seven runners in 13 attempted steals in his two years of experience."

Wells, a left-hander, is expected to top the pitching rotation after going 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings last season.

"We lost 10 (graduates) who accounted for about 80 percent of our at-bats and 75 percent of the innings pitched last year," Weer said. "But we have an ace in Wells, who threw a no-hitter in his first varsity outing last year. We may be inexperienced as far as varsity baseball goes, but we have a potentially deep and talented team.

"Our strength should be our defense. We have the potential to be very strong up the middle of our defense. Our catcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder are all plus defenders. We also have a stable of pitchers who love to pound the strike zone."

Following Wells in the pitching rotation are senior Seth Schmidt, sophomore Andrew Patrick and junior Connor Maruniak. Last season, Schmidt was 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA in 17 2/3 innings.

"Patrick has a high ceiling and can play anywhere on the diamond when he's not pitching," Weer said. "He's already committed to Wright State."

Also returning are seniors Scott Bugg (P), Jackson Buty (OF) and Kyle Miller (3B). Bugg is expected to be the top reliever and Miller, who batted .333 last season, also can play in the middle infield.

Junior Nick Skelskey (INF/P) is expected to be the closer.

Sophomore Paxton Schwandt is starting at shortstop and already has impressed Weer this season.

"He is a silky smooth defender and a Division I college prospect," Weer said. "He will anchor what I believe can be a very good defense."

Others seeking playing time are juniors Nick Cecil (P), Garret Mudgett (OF), Nick Perie (INF), Cole Shrodes (P/1B) and Jack Stultz (OF). Senior Alec Fratturelli also is on the roster, but is out for the season with an injury.

"The internal competition for playing time is fierce," Weer said. "There are more capable players looking to earn regular playing time than just the nine starting spots allowed in baseball."

Girls lacrosse team returns seven starters

The girls lacrosse team has returned seven starters and has increased its depth by getting more involvement in the program as it looks to build off last season, when it finished 10-8 overall and 2-4 in the OCC-Cardinal.

The Panthers opened March 19 with a 19-7 win over Marysville and defeated Chillicothe 24-13 on April 1. They begin league play Thursday, April 4, at home against Worthington Kilbourne.

"We have some of the best numbers our program has ever seen," second-year coach Kaleb Secor said. "Our team is 59 girls strong, with 48 of them being freshmen and sophomores. Although our team is young, we still have 13 letterwinners back and we have a very competitive and hard-working group."

The Panthers, who have only one senior in defender/midfielder Kensie Stellrecht, expect to be led on offense by sophomore attacker Haylee Handrahan, who was named first-team all-OCC-Cardinal last season.

"Haylee has great speed and an absolutely devastating shot," Secor said. "She is a professional goal scorer and does an amazing job at putting the ball in the back of the net."

The Panthers also return three starters in the midfield with junior Carli Rigel and sophomores Kelsey Binion and Sophia Iosue as well as three starters on defense in sophomores Cate Gearhiser, Kendyl Mahoney and Caroline Turner.

"Kelsey is one of our top contributors," Secor said. "She can play anywhere in the field and do so at an elite level. She is a great leader, which is why her peers voted her as a captain even though she is a sophomore. She has an exceptional understanding and feel for the game.

"Carli is very tough and a fierce competitor. As a third-year varsity player, she is the true leader of the team. She has great speed and tenacity and does a great job helping to get everyone in position and in keeping them focused."

Freshman Carley House is starting in the attack and junior Anna Goschke is the starting goalkeeper.

Also seeking playing time are juniors Gabby Stern (attacker) and Mel Hurtado (defender/midfielder), sophomores Emily Byrd (attacker), Logan Card (goalie), Haley Clifton (attacker), Ashley Derenzo (defender), Lindsay Gerdes (defender), Lexi Lednik (attacker) and Hala Mustief (defender) and freshmen Hannah Damron (attacker), Sophia Fratturelli (midfielder), Reinee Luang (midfielder) and Olivia Miller (midfielder).

bemerine@thisweeknews.com

@Brad_ThisWeek

Schedules

Below are the coming schedules for the Darby baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, softball, boys tennis, track & field and boys volleyball teams:

BASEBALL

April 6 -- At Olentangy

*April 8 -- Home vs. Delaware

*April 10 -- At Delaware

BOYS LACROSSE

*April 4 -- At Worthington Kilbourne

*April 9 -- Home vs. Dublin Scioto

GIRLS LACROSSE

*April 4 -- Home vs. Worthington Kilbourne

April 6 -- At Davidson with Toledo St. Ursula Academy

*April 9 -- At Dublin Scioto

SOFTBALL

April 5 -- Home vs. Westerville North

April 6 -- Home vs. Davidson and Pickerington North

*April 10 -- At Olentangy Berlin

BOYS TENNIS

*April 4 -- At Worthington Kilbourne

April 8 -- At Davidson

*April 9 -- Home vs. Dublin Scioto

TRACK & FIELD

April 5 -- Panther Invitational at home

BOYS VOLLEYBALL

*April 4 -- Home vs. Dublin Scioto

*April 8 -- Home vs. Dublin Jerome

*April 9 -- At Olentangy Berlin

*League contest