In recent years, the Niles McKinley High baseball team has established itself as perhaps the school's most consistent sports program. It has logged a winning record in nine of the past 14 years, and has won multiple sectional titles.
Last year, the Red Dragons fought through the wettest spring in area history to log a 17-6 record.
If the Dragons are going to continue their success in 2012, they will have to get help from a group of players who, as a whole, lack significant varsity playing time. Gone from last year's roster are eight lettermen who were lost to graduation. Six of the eight starting position players a year ago were seniors.
The 2012 roster includes just two seniors - Pat Barrett and Gage McCracken.
"It's tough to replace experience. That's one thing that you can't teach," said Dragons coach Mike Guarnieri. "And, most of the guys we lost, they were three and four year starters."
Yet despite the youth, Guarnieri believes his team will once again be very competitive in the American Division of the always-rugged All-American Conference.
Niles is slated to open its season March 27 with a road game at Campbell.
"I think our program has gotten to a point to where we can bounce back from the loss of a big graduating class and still compete," Guarnieri said. "We have the Babe Ruth summer league program that helps the younger kids learn our style. We have some underclassmen who lack experience at this level, but who are very good athletes.
"We might take time to develop and to gel as a team, but I think we'll be okay."
Developing a pitching staff will be Guarnieri's top concern. Last season, seniors were responsible for 113 of the 157 innings pitched. The lone returning letterman with extensive mound experience is junior Jake Foster, who as a sophomore worked 30.2 innings and recorded a 2.05 ERA.
"Jake will definitely anchor our staff. He has the experience and the skill to be a strong leader," Guarnieri said. "We'll need him to step up immediately and provide us with a lot of quality innings."
McCracken, along with juniors Brennen Baker and Noah Arvin and sophomore Trent Collins will be among a host of players looking to fill the pitching staff.
"What we lack in experience we make up for in depth. We will have a lot of guys competing for spots either in the rotation or as relievers," Guarnieri said.
The everyday lineup will provide Niles with a bit more experience. In fact, the top five projected spots in the lineup are expected to remain intact from a year ago. Foster (.390 batting average last year) is expected to bat third, while Barrett (.350, 21 RBI) will serve as the Dragons' cleanup hitter.
In addition to their roles on the field, Guarnieri noted that Barrett and McCracken will be asked to serve as team leaders throughout the season.
"It's tough only having two seniors, but we're lucky in that the two that we have are tremendous role models for the rest of the team," Guarnieri said. "Pat and Gage both lead by example. They show up to work every day, and they give everything they have to the program."
Guarnieri noted that changes in the AAC schedule will provide his young squad with a challenging start to the season. Much of the schedule includes three conference games per week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday). After opening the season at Campbell, Niles will return to action the following day when it plays on the road against backyard rival Howland.
"Last year we split with Howland. Our schedule gives us the opportunity to set the tone of the season very early this year. We'll just have to see how things go," Guarnieri said.
Niles will also play five games in Myrtle Beach, S.C. as part of the annual Ripken Experience. Opponents include schools from New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
The games will take place in mid-April, during the week of Easter break.
"This is something we've been trying to work out for a number of years, but scheduling never allowed it to happen until now," Guarnieri said. "We've talked to a number of coaches who have participated in the Ripken Experience in the past, and we've gotten nothing but positive feedback."
In addition to being tested by some of the top out-of-state competition, Guarnieri said that the trip will offer his players a unique bonding experience.
"We're going to be together 24 hours a day for six straight days. You get to know a lot about your teammates when you're together that much. From a team standpoint, I believe the trip can do a world of good. I think it will be a positive experience," Guarnieri said.
Like other area teams, Niles also has benefited from a mild winter. As of Monday, the Dragons practiced on their home field four times.
"Before this year, I don't think we've ever been on the field in February," Guarnieri said. "We benefit from a nice indoor workout facility, but it's always nice to get in as many outdoor practices as possible.
"Then again, we have a saying that it's always 75 and sunny. That's how we roll."
Following its two road games to open the season, Niles plays its first home game on Friday, March 30 when it hosts Warren G. Harding.