---- — By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
Quality over quantity -- that's the crux of the problem facing many Heartland-I baseball teams this season.
For them the burden is not the number of players they have to replace but rather the caliber of the few graduates they lost that's difficult to replicate.
"We lost some key kids that we really counted on, and it hurts when you lose a few good ones," said Mifflinburg's Tom Church, the dean of HAC-I coaches in his 18th year. "I think we're finding it hard to fill those holes, when you don't have that kid to rely on anymore."
Austin Hockenbrock and Colton Keister combined to pitch 11 of Midd-West's 13 wins, each posting an ERA around 1.60.
The District 4 Class AAA runners-up will turn to a group of pitchers including one senior (Ryan Combs) and six juniors and sophomores, headed by junior Hunter Shuff.
"You can't lose two kids like that and say you won't miss them on the hill," said Mustangs coach Ron Flood. "If I have to use two, three, four (pitchers) in a game, it doesn't make any difference to me."
The sticks should keep the Mustangs in games, as seniors Luke Zimmerman (.424) and Shane Connahan (.358) return to anchor the lineup.
"Hopefully we'll play fairly decent defense and hopefully we can hit a little and hopefully we don't make too many mistakes," said Flood. "If that's the case, the pitching staff has an opportunity to grow and progress."
Danville's Devin Knorr is another HAC-I coach shifting from the workhorse approach to a committee. Departed ace Mason Fausnaught pitched 52 innings last season (with a 2.54 ERA), more than twice as many as any other Ironman.
"We might not have a guy who goes 7 innings or 110 pitches, and, on the surface, some might see that a weakness. We see it as a strength," said Knorr. "We're very, very confident in the depth we have. There's very little difference from the top of our staff to the bottom. So when teams get into our bullpen, there's not going to be a big drop-off."
Infielders Garrett Krum, a senior, and Shayne Riley, a junior, are Danville's top returning hitter (.333) and run producer (14 RBIs), respectively.
"If everyone pulls together this will be a good team," said Knorr.
Nine of the 20 players on Mifflinburg's roster are freshmen, but the the Wildcats have seven returning position starters, as well as senior ace Andrew Leitzel (6 wins, 1.80 ERA).
"Andrew threw his butt off last year, but now people know he's out there," said Church. "He's going to have to pitch most of our games. There's not a lot known behind him because they haven't done anything on varsity yet."
Wildcats junior shortstop Brady Lloyd became one of the area's top players last season with a .415 average, 14 steals, 2 strikeouts in 71 plate appearances and superior defense.
"The kids selected as one of their goals to get into the district final," said Church. "Whether they believe they can and want to work that hard I'm not sure, but we're going to have to do it as a team because we can't do it with just a few individuals."
Selinsgrove also has its sights set on districts after not qualfying the last two seasons (by one and two wins, respectively). That, on the heels of six straight appearances and three district finals.
"When I think back on some of our most successful teams, it wasn't a case of two or three horses carrying us but more like six or seven," said Seals coach Brent Beiler. "I think we do have some good experience returning on a senior-laden team which does have its advantages."
Colton Brouse inherits the Seals' top player mantle from four-year starter Alex Moyer. Last year Brouse hit .288 with 14 RBIs and won three games with a 3.29 ERA. Junior Isaiah Rapp was close behind, batting .270 with 11 RBIs, and winning twice with a 3.30 ERA.
"I think we return a pretty good hitting lineup," said Beiler, "but the question is always pitching and how well can it hold up? We need more than one horse, so we're looking at some youngsters to fill those shoes."
Shikellamy, like its cross-river rival, missed the playoffs by two wins a season ago, but that marked a solid step forward under now fourth-year coach Bobby Felmy.
"I think 8-12 sticks with the kids a little bit," said Felmy, "like, We've got to get this program back. What do we need to do as a group to get over that hump because that's what we're going to do."
The Braves got an infusion of talent from a sophomore class that enjoyed success at the Little League level. New leadoff hitter Kyle Leitzel and his classmates created the kind of competition Felmy craved to take his team to the next level, along with established standouts like juniors Nick Dunn (a school-record .544 average last year) and Colby Lahr (.373, 18 runs).
"The older guys see these younger guys can play and they're thinking, I can't let them show me up," said Felmy. "We haven't had this kind of passion in practice. It's exciting to see."
Milton is the one HAC-I team that graduated both quality and quantity, losing seven starters. However, third-year coach Chace Phillips is fortunate to have his top hitter (Brady Chappell, .386) and pitcher (Mark Artley, 3.25 ERA), both seniors, to build around.
"Last year we had a ton of expectations we didn't quite live up to (going 8-12), and this year there's not as much with what we lost," said Phillips, "but there is a sense of excitement. We've got a lot of new faces in new places. I'm sure there will be growing pains and we'll struggle in certain areas, but the fact is I know these guys will go out and give all they have."
Montoursville, which finished second in the division last season, figures to contend once again. The Warriors have two all-state caliber seniors in 1B/P Andrew Null (.455 avg.; 1.40 ERA) and catcher Cameron Ott (.412) among five returning starters.
"Our team should be just as strong as last year (16-5)," said Warriors coach Travis Wurster. "We have some strong underclassmen to fill the voids of graduation."
Jersey Shore went 17-4 last year (13-1 HAC-I), with three of its losses coming by one run including a nine-inning state playoff with Abington Heights. The Bulldogs are the odds-on favorite to repeat as HAC-I champion on the strength of ace Travis Eiswerth (7-1, 1.34 ERA) and a potent offense.