MOUNT VERNON — He may not be holding his cards like a riverboat gambler, but Utica baseball coach Bren Henderson isn’t going to tip his hand to his opponents.
Utica returns eight varsity lettermen, but Henderson isn’t volenteering too many secrets as his Redskins prepare for battle in the always-tough Mid-Buckeye Conference.
“Like any team, we have question marks,” said Henderson. “We’re young in some spots. I guess our opponents are going to have to figure out where that is. There’s some question marks. We’ll see if they get answers in the next week or two. Unfortunately, they read the papers, too.”
Michael Sandman, who batted .439 in 2008, returns for another season at Utica and is surrounded by a pretty strong bunch of seniors. Jerrod Ours (.390), Jesse Hughes (.367, 13 steals), Shane Williamson (14 RBI) and Rob Shaw (nine doubles) are all back for another go-round. Juniors Derek Beaver (.347) and pitcher Joe Wheeler (2-0) are also among the notable.
Aside from the strong bats, Henderson describes the pitching and defense as, “pretty decent,” with concern for some areas where each lacked experience at the varsity level. Again, he is leaving it up to the Redskins opponents to come up with those answers in the dog-eat-dog MBC.
“Our scrimmages this week are ultra-important in figuring out who will fill in where we lack experience,” said Henderson. “We are going for three league titles in a row and I’d rather make my opponents have to find that out themselves.”
The East Knox Bulldogs continue to improve and are loaded with seniors and juniors. They too, along with Centerburg, Fredericktown, Loudonville and Johnstown, hope to contend for the MBC title.
“We only graduated three players last year,” said coach Kevin Gallwitz. “I think we’ve raised the expectations a lot for our players and the kids have really responded well to that. We’re getting good numbers and we have a good coaching staff in place.”
John Miller (.322) graduated, but the Bulldogs have nine returning lettermen. Pitcher/shortstop John Burwell (4-3, .411 BA) and pitcher/third baseman Nick Kidd are back in 2009. Mike Hedrick moved in from Mount Vernon this year. First baseman Tyler Busenberg is coming off an injury-plagued season. Right fielder T.J. Frazee will also be back.
The Bulldogs have three junior catchers: Jordan Hill, Johnathan Washatka and Jacob Morningstar. Gallwitz is hoping outfielder Josh Neely will step up.
“We have a lot of pitchers,” said Gallwitz. “Out of 15 guys, 11 of them pitch. Defensively, we should be pretty solid.”
The grass isn’t any greener over in the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference where Highland is expected to field another solid team. They’ll need to with teams like Buckeye Valley, where 90 kids are competing for roster spots. Meanwhile, North Union brings back the majority of last year’s successful team. River Valley, who lost a number of kids to graduation, is expected to reload.
“I think our pitching is going to be pretty strong,” said Highland coach Travis Church. “We have a good mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen. We’ve had 20 boys working out this winter in the weight room conditioning.”
The Scots graduated SS Brandon Geiger (.400) and top pitcher and leadoff batter Andrew Westbrook (.302). On the bright side, pitcher/center fielder Jake Hampton (.423) is back and so are pitcher/left fielder Justin Pugh, pitcher/right fielder Dustin Green (.324), pitcher/first baseman Cole Randolph and pitcher/third baseman Shawn Coburn.
“I don’t know who that number one starting pitcher is going to be,” said Church, “We have four kids that we are really confident of putting on the mound. Our kids understand that it is something special to be a part of our program.”
Only time will tell who will rise to the top, but one thing is sure — at the moment, there is a crowd.