An early look at baseball in area

People always seem to be slightly annoyed by those way-too-early preseason polls that media outlets present for differing college sports.

And yet, everyone looks at them. They’re too enticing not to. It’s like you want to get mad — or excited — over something you know means nothing. Personally, I think it’s fun to make predictions before you have any idea on how good teams are. Now, if you use those same preseason rankings and predictions to determine who earns certain berths in playoffs or bowl games, etc., that’s another issue entirely.

The same can be said for early-season records of high school baseball teams in northeast Ohio. Predicting which teams are legit and which ones are pretenders is next to impossible after a handful of games, and yet, again, it’s hard not to at least give people a glimpse into what could be.

So far, the area teams most expected to be good are, indeed, good. Champion is 10-2 (6-0 in the All-American Conference’s Blue Tier). Niles is 10-1 (5-0 in the AAC’s White Tier). Western Reserve is 9-1, with their only loss coming over the weekend to undefeated Columbiana (10-0).

Those teams came in with high expectations, along with a few others, such as John F. Kennedy (5-2) and Poland (7-2), and going off a very small sample size, here are a few impressions.

1. Niles is probably the best of the bunch right now, with apologies to Western Reserve and Champion. The Red Dragons boast pitching depth, solid defense and a balanced lineup from top to bottom. Their lone loss was on the road to Cardinal Mooney, which is annually one of the Mahoning Valley’s better teams. Starting pitchers Tyler Srbinovich and Marco DeFalco have been spectacular. DeFalco, a hard-throwing lefty, has yet to allow a run and has struck out 43 over 21 innings. Srbinovich has a 0.50 ERA over 28 innings and is 3-0 . Throw in fellow pitchers Corbin Foy (one earned run in 12 innings) and Joseph Proper, and you’ve got one of the best staffs in the area.

2. Western Reserve is the team to beat in Division IV — again. The Blue Devils have won three straight district titles and been to the state’s final four twice in the past three seasons. It’s never easy to keep that type of run going in a one-and-done postseason, but Reserve has the talent to do it. Similar to Niles, the Blue Devils’ strength is pitching. Wyatt Larimer, Dom Velasquez and Jeep DiCioccio are not only seasoned starting pitchers who have played in big games, but they’re also really, really good. Any of the three can beat even an elite team on any given day. Reserve’s lineup is a bit of a work in progress, but again, the talent is there. If the defense continues to play well, look for another deep playoff run.

3. Champion may be the most exciting team in the area. The Golden Flashes probably boast the deepest and most potent lineup, with players like Kent State-recruit Michael Turner (.567 batting average), Lucas Nasonti (.529) and Drake Batcho (.433) powering it. Batcho also might be the area’s most highly touted pitcher. The big left-hander, who is only a junior, throws in the 80s and has major upside even after high school. The Golden Flashes endured close losses to Lakewood (7-6) and Chagrin Falls (8-7), and their schedule is tough enough that they might be dealt another loss or two, but the high level of competition and tight games are only going to help them in the postseason.

There are some other teams that have had strong starts and could be the real deal, but time will tell. Hubbard is 8-2 and has shown steady improvement over the last few years under coach John Schiraldi, so they’ll be in the mix the rest of the season. Canfield could be too. The Cardinals (6-1) are young and still have to play the meat of their AAC schedule, so it remains to be seen if their youthful team can stay consistent.

Mathews (6-1) and Kennedy again will be contenders in Division IV, without a doubt, but how far they can advance is still up in the air. Mathews is young and was dominated by Grand Valley last week in a key conference clash, so the Mustangs from Trumbull County are still finding themselves. Kennedy has two great pitchers in Drew Mendik and Ryan Lee, but the Eagles also have much to prove.

One final wild-card is Poland. The Bulldogs have been one of the Valley’s best teams (they may be slightly behind Reserve) the last three years, and while 7-2 is a good record, coach Rich Murray recently said he is still waiting for his squad to put it all together. If that time comes, watch out because they will be dangerous.

To make any of this happen, Mother Nature needs to cooperate, and not even those who get paid to predict her next move can do that, so I’ll leave that up to the higher powers. Baseball is more my thing … I hope.

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