Who wears the pants in area baseball?

The first few weeks of high school baseball are always rough in northeast Ohio, but Mother Nature is really trying her hardest to show who wears the pants around here this season.

How teams even got a few games in over the last two weeks was hard to believe. As is often the case, we’ll have mid-50s and sunny weather one day and snow and 30s the next. Throw in some rain, hail, strong winds and a couple nice days, just for good measure, and that’s a typical week.

That makes it hard to determine who the contenders and pretenders are early in the year, but let’s take a shot at it anyway.

The obvious top contender is Champion, the defending Division III state champion. The Golden Flashes’ title ended a 73-year drought for Trumbull County (Leavittsburg last won a state title in 1943) with its 1-0 victory over Berlin Hiland last June. Champion returns its pitching tandem of Drake Batcho — headed to the University of Cincinnati — and Andrew Russell — verbally committed to Ohio University. The two had ERAs under 1.00 last season, throw in the mid-80s and have the offspeed pitches to keep hitters guessing.

They’re also the two best hitters on the team (Batcho hit .431, Russell batted .406 in 2017), and that’s what it will likely come down to for Champion. If the Golden Flashes can match the clutch hitting they had last year, they’ll be in the mix for another deep postseason run.

Western Reserve is no stranger to playing for postseason championships. The Blue Devils have owned the Division IV Struthers district over the years — winning six of the last seven district titles — and they’ve been in the state final four twice in the last four seasons. That said, they lost a lot from last year’s regional finalist team and will need some inexperienced players to step in to big roles.

Seniors like Ryan Demsky, a senior who hit .330 last year, and Dom Velasquez, another senior who hit .360 and had a 2.81 ERA, create a nice core, so there’s reason to believe another run is possible.

A team that kind of flew under the radar last year (until the postseason) was Canfield. The Cardinals return the bulk of their district championship team from last year, so they should be the team to beat in the Division II Struthers district.

Starters Jack Rafoth (1.02 ERA last year) and Anthony Longo (1.33 ERA) are both seniors this season along with Ian McGraw (2.65 ERA). That’s a scary three-headed monster for opponents. Canfield’s leading hitters from a year ago Alex Hernandez (.352 average) and Dominic Pilolli (.350) are back as well. Throw in McGraw (.333 average), Rafoth (.308) and Richie Juliano (.412 in limited action) into the fold, and the Cardinals again possess a deep, talented lineup.

Overall, Canfield lost just two players from last season — when it lost, 3-2, in the regional final — and is loaded this year. The Cardinals probably possess the deepest, most experienced team of anyone else in the Mahoning Valley.

There are a handful of other teams that could make runs, such as Mathews, Girard, Grand Valley, Niles, Poland, and there are probably a few more no one knows about just yet (anyone see that Liberty beat returning AAC champ Niles, or Badger thumped Jackson-Milton, another returning conference champ?).

Part of what makes baseball great — and infuriating — is that an unknown can cut down a tradition-rich giant on any given day. If one player on your team is out of sync (namely the pitcher), and the other team is in a groove, a promising season can end in a couple of innings.

That is, if good ole Mother Nature allows them to even play. Let’s hope she stops announcing her presence with such authority (yes, I stole that from Bull Durham) in the near future.

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