Nine Morris pitchers combined on a 4.58 ERA and a 175-158 strikeout-walk ratio over 231 innings during the 2012 varsity baseball season for the 16-19 Redskins.
Seven of those pitchers — who accounted for 169 1/3 of those innings — are back for the Redskins this season. The same names that comprised a young 2012 staff will return as a more experienced group of pitchers that coach Todd Kein hopes will be one of the Redskins' biggest strengths.
"We have a lot experience back and have got a solid core in our pitching staff from last year," Kein said. "We're expecting big things from them, and we think they can also help our young guys progress."
Junior Tim Smyk returns as the Redskins' ace, a role he grew into as a sophomore in 2012, when he went 4-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 50 innings. Having spent the past several weeks throwing at The Edge Sports Performance Academy in Plainfield, Smyk says his repitore is improved, and that he is more prepared mentally to be a varsity No. 1.
"My curveball is a lot better. I feel I can throw it over for strikes with confidence. I haven't needed my two-seam fastball as much but I feel I can use it now," Smyk said. "I was a little nervous coming up and pitching last season. Over the offseason, I worked on some stuff and I feel a lot more comfortable with my role on the team."
Also back is senior co-captain Preston Miracle, who hurled a team-high 61 2/3 innings last year, with a 3-4 record and a 3.86 ERA. Fellow returnees Drew Aldrich, Kade Bashor, Jake Capko, Brian Henry and Christian Niewinski all pitched in 2012, though none logged more than 25 1/3 innings; Henry was injured for much of the season.
Capko, a senior co-captain who pitched only one inning and is primarily a catcher for the Redskins, is already used to working with everyone that projects as part of the 2013 staff.
"I've been catching these guys for two years now. I don't think I'll have any difficulty catching them again," Capko said. "I know everybody's strikeout pitch. I know everybody's high-percentage first-strike pitch."
A .233 hitter with five doubles, three home runs and 16 RBI in 2012, Capko fills one of only three positions at which Kein has decided on a regular starter. Another co-captain, Grant Davis (.313 with three doubles and 12 RBI in 2012), will be the primary left fielder. Junior varsity newcomer Trevor Lines is the clear frontrunner at shortstop, where Kein says he is inexperienced but "very skilled."
The only other returnee who batted more than 82 times in 2012 is Miracle, who was a .336 hitter with eight doubles, three homers and 30 RBI. Miracle could play at either corner infield spot when he is not pitching.
"In the past, I've played every single position except shortstop and center field," Miracle said. "Right now, we've got a couple of guys who have taken some bumps and may miss some time. Wherever I'm needed, I'll do my job and play."
Kein says there are "healthy battles" between two players for a pair of starting spots. Senior Jason Matteson, a .294 bitter in 51 2012 at-bats, is competing with junior Kyle Hill in center field. Senior Ryan Borgstrom, who hit .305 in 82 at-bats last spring, is being challenged by junior Matt Bernickus at second base.
Injuries have made the outlook less clear at other positions. In right field, senior Nick Kelly is hurt, which may create an opportunity for junior Austin Conrod. Three pitchers — Miracle, Niewinski and Smyk — will be part of a platoon at third base, though Niewinski is currently injured. Henry, Miracle, junior Grant Schluntz and junior John Struck are all in the mix at first base, with Schluntz's left-handed bat offering a potential added dimension to the lineup.
Kein says that Matteson, when he is in the lineup, will likely be slotted near the top as the Redskins look to take advantage of his speed. Miracle, Capko, Borgstrom and Davis are all likely to bat near the top or in the middle of the order.
"One thing about our lineup is that we have great depth," Capko said. "If someone is hot and someone else is not, you could see different guys step in depending on who's hitting and who's not. ... I'm not worried about our hitting. It will come down to our pitching and playing solid defense."
Morris went 6-9 in Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference East play last season. Kaneland is the defending champion and won the Class 3A state championship in 2011, though conference rival DeKalb defeated the Knights at the 2012 Kaneland Regional.
"Conference is going to be tough. Even though it's on the younger side, we're talking about programs that tend to reload quickly," Kein said. "Kaneland has some younger guys, but it's Kaneland, and I would expect them to compete. Yorkville has I believe their entire pitching staff back, so we know they're going to be just as tough if not more so. Sycamore and DeKalb have been good at baseball for some time. Rochelle is improving."
Kein says an NIB12 East championship is "first and foremost" among the Redskins' goals, though winning their first regional since 2003 is also very high on the list.
"Any coach will tell you that they want to play for a state championship, but you don't have that opportunity if you don't meet other goals along the way," Kein said. "Winning a regional championship is a priority for our program. If we are fortunate enough to do that first, then we'll go from there."