To compensate for their lack of experience, said Brannan, the Patriots will feature strong pitching and defense. Senior Paul Blackburn, one of the top pitchers in the area, leads the rotation and figures to keep the Patriots competitive in every game. Behind him, junior Kyle Dryer, sophomore Brady Navarro and junior Josh Calmerin will vie for innings on the mound.
“I would label our hitting as a work in progress,” Brannan said. “But if I have to pick one of the three to not have locked down, it would be hitting. If we couldn’t pitch or field, we’d be in trouble. You just aren’t going to win 10-9 in the playoffs.”
When it comes to generating offense, Brannan will be depending on Blackburn, centerfielder Ryan Smith, junior utility man Dallas Gebrosky and senior third baseman Mitch Packard. Brannan also hopes to work the raw power of sophomore Steele Eich into the lineup.
In high school competition, the deciding factor is often experience. When a team as good as last season’s Wolverines returns nearly its entire nucleus, you’ve got a scary squad. Among Deer Valley’s returning players are seniors Ricky Delgado, Jacob Peters, Marcos Martinez, and junior Tyler Vistalli. The four made up the Wolverines’ pitching staff in 2011, and are now back to take one more run at the league title.
Backing them up is a solid infield, including senior shortstop Michael Lanter and third baseman Joshua Manci, a duo that manager Dennis Luquet called the best left side of the infield that the Wolverines have ever seen.
“We’re going to be a good team,” Luquet said. “Our pitching and defense will keep us in every game. If we can execute well and move runners along, we’ll be fine.”
Two newcomers Deer Valley will be relying on are junior first baseman Brenden Doig and freshman left fielder Ricky Pato, who is currently batting fourth in the lineup.
Ben Juarez’s group of Panthers will have a completely different look from the senior-heavy team that missed the playoffs by only one game. This year’s lineup includes five or six sophomores, depending on the day, but will be carried by an experienced pitching staff.
Seniors Joseph Chatham, Ronnie Brohman, Richie Bartan and junior Logan Crump will be throwing to senior Anthony Borelli, whom Juarez considers possibly the best overall defensive catcher in the league.
Offensively, Juarez will depend on sophomore leadoff man Troy Vanderstrom – already a strong defensive left fielder whose forte is contact hitting. Starting shortstop Tony Nobriga, a sophomore, is also expected to swing a productive bat. In terms of senior offensive leadership, first baseman Troy Amate will bat third and is expected to drive in runs at a fierce clip.
“Younger guys can be molded the way you want,” Juarez said. “This is a young team with a good group of role-model seniors. They’ll help mold younger guys into guys with good character who want to play baseball.”
The Falcons’ last two seasons featured several underclassmen learning the varsity game as the team struggled to regain its magic of 2009, when it won the North Coast Section finals. But Freedom’s current abundance of juniors and seniors makes it one of the league’s more experienced squads.
One of them is senior pitcher Joe Navilhon, who led the team in wins a season ago with a sub-2.00 earned run average. One of the team’s more productive men at the plate, Navilhon hit better than .300 last season.
Junior pitcher/third baseman Jake McGarry, off to a torrid start with the bat, is another Falcon who figures to play a prominent role in the team’s success. Joining McGarry in the rarified air of above-.500 hitting in the early going is first baseman Jesse Swenson.
One of Freedom’s top arms last season was Miguel Carvajal, who returns as a junior to play dual roles as shortstop and pitcher.
The overwhelming majority of the Pirates’ roster consists of seniors. Manager Bob Orr is looking for leadership from catcher Cris Borromeo, third baseman/pitcher Jacob Bartzi and infielder Lorenzo Sandoval, as well as Nabeeh Blackburn and Malik Watson. Blackburn and Watson split time between pitching and playing the outfield.
“We have a group of seniors that have played together and work well together,” Orr said. “They understand what they’re doing, and that’s an asset.”
Orr identified lack of consistency as the factor that could hurt the Pirates’ place in the standings – a factor that needs to be improved by Pittsburg’s April 17 league opener against Heritage.
According to manager Seth Wheelock, in his second season with the Lions, Liberty will pin its hopes on pitching and young hitting talent.
The rotation will be led by senior Stevan Zaharias, who was expected to throw to classmate Zach Finley until Finley suffered a potentially season-ending injury.
But Wheelock remains optimistic. “A lot of the kids stuck together all summer long and into the fall,” he said. “They played pretty well and came in really strong and confident. We have a lot of junior and sophomore starters. They don’t lack the talent; it’s just a matter of them being as confident that they can.”
Last season’s starting shortstop, sophomore Mitchell Zamora, is expected to anchor the Lions with his glove and bat. Joining him in the middle of the order are junior first baseman Tristan Prybylisnki and sophomore utility man Cody Luther.
Although junior left fielder Johnny Hemenes’ JV numbers last season were underwhelming, his improvement has been a pleasant surprise – and earned him the leadoff slot in the batting order. Wheelock hopes the rest of the team will follow Hemenes’ trajectory.
“We’re going to rely on our pitching to pace us,” Wheelock said. “We’re going to have to play catch. The hitting comes later as timing gets down, so we need to rely on throwing strikes and playing catch.”