Disappointment was the prevalent feeling around the Canfield baseball team last May.
Following a terrific 20-win season, the Cardinals came within one victory of advancing to the state semifinals in Columbus. In that regional final loss to Mentor Lake Catholic, the Cardinals were clipped by a homerun in the bottom of the seventh inning. Making that walk-off setback even more heartbreaking was that eight of Canfield's nine starters that day graduated a couple weeks later. Those departures leaves Canfield head coach Matt Koenig with some major holes to fill in 2013.
"We are somewhat young," Koenig said recently. "We will have to replace our entire infield. These kids are not used to the everyday grind. Now they are going to be thrown into the fire."
If the Cardinals intend not to get burned by their youth this year, they will need to depend on the kids that throw smoke. Some of the most talented Cardinals will be found in the center of the diamond.
"Our strength is definitely our pitching," Koenig said. "We have solid pitchers who throw hard and throw strikes."
Two of those flame-throwers are senior Tony Velasquez and junior Alec Buchenic. Buchenic has the most innings of any returning Canfield pitcher and Velasquez saw a ton of time out of the bullpen. These Canfield hurlers should be one and two in Koenig's rotation this season.
"Both of these kids had a great off season," Koenig announced. "Buchenic is one of our better pitchers. We will count on him heavily. Velasquez waited his turn (last year) as a reliever and will get a chance to start more (this year)."
What makes this Canfield mound group even greater is that there are some younger pitchers who are ready to break through in 2013. Juniors Jimmy Leone, Jake Cole and Colton Crissman were members of Canfield's unbeaten JV team from a year ago and should be able to bring that winning attitude to the varsity squad. That trio should have plenty of help from their older teammates in order to get acclimated.
"Hopefully the experienced guys can bring these guys along," said Koenig.
In order for the pitching to be as successful as Koenig hopes, his boys will have to be golden with their gloves. No pitching staff can keep runners off the bases if it is derailed by deficient defense. That is why coach Koenig counts fielding as a major component of his ball club.
"We are unproven on defense," said the coach, "but we need our defense to carry us early until the bats get warmed up. Our infield is going to have to mature quickly."
One spot in the infield where the Cardinals are very capable is behind the plate where there are two competent catchers. Senior Tom Ciccolelli and junior Carter Rhoads will vie for the starting job.
"We have some great competition (at catcher)," Koenig admitted. "(Ciccolelli and Rhoads) are two very good catchers."
Three other seniors who will lead the team this season will be corner outfielders Derek Turocy and Dylan Williams and speedy Kyle Nagy.
"(Nagy) played sparingly last year," Koenig said, "but he has some good wheels. Turocy is a three-year letter winner and Williams will man one of the two corner outfield spots."
Junior Edmund Pilolli will also see a lot of starting time at both middle infield positions as well as on the hill.
The Redbirds will do something different this season, as they will begin their schedule away from home. When we say "away" we don't mean like in Salem or Niles, we're talking Myrtle Beach. Koenig's club leaves for South Carolina on March 29 to play in the tournament that runs from April 2 through 6. Coach Koenig hopes that that Good Friday departure leads to some good luck against southern teams that have already been playing games since the beginning of March.
"It will be tough starting our season (in Myrtle Beach)," said Koenig honestly. "We play a team from Tennessee and one from South Carolina that started their seasons March 1. We'll compete the best we can there."
At least the competition in Carolina will have the Cardinals ready to handle Howland when they return on April 8 and 9. The Tigers are one of the favorites to replace Canfield on top of the All American Conference American Tier. The Cards, however, are not ready to relinquish their lofty standing easily.
"We still have lots of talent," Koenig said adamantly. "Our schedule will be tough, but it will have us ready for the tournament. I firmly believe that we will compete for a league and district title and get back to the regionals."