It's been a tough spring, and it's only a week old. But brighter days are ahead, and some of that light will come from the stars who grace the high school baseball diamonds in Lebanon County in 2014.
While the cold and wintry weather is hanging around longer than most baseball fans would like, warmer temperatures are near, and that's when the elite players put their best feet forward to help their teams win games.
Among the players to watch this season are five who have already set themselves apart by being named to last year's All-County Baseball Team. Those handful of senior players include Northern Lebanon's Drew Bene, Cedar Crest's Conor Bawiec, Annville-Cleona's Mitch Rodkey and Braden Elliott and Palmyra's Zach Miller.
Bene is arguably the county's top prospect as he's headed to Division I Stony Brook in the fall. The catcher is coming off a junior season in which he hit .439 out of the Vikings' No. 3 spot in the lineup, contributing three doubles, a triple, one home run and nine RBIs for NL in earning his second varsity letter. Bene also played varsity as a freshman at the end of the 2010 season.
"Not only is he a good player, but he's a great kid," Northern Lebanon head coach Daryl Hess said of his catalyst.
In South Lebanon, Bawiec will get the ball against the top teams in Section One as the Falcons' ace. The senior who is undecided on his college choice struck out 60 in 54-plus innings last spring, notching a 2.30 ERA while going 6-2.
Bawiec also hit .382 at the plate and will again be looked at to produce on the mound and in the box.
"He'll definitely be counted on to lead the staff and lead the hitters on the field," Cedar Crest boss Ryan White said. "We'll match him up against the best teams we play that week."
In Annville, Rodkey (shortstop, pitcher) and Elliott (pitcher, infielder) are the keystones to a Dutchman team that posted the county's best record last season at 12-10. Elliott is planning to continue his baseball career at Lancaster Bible College while Rodkey is undecided.
"(Rodkey) does everything well," coach Scott Shyda said of the first team Section Four all-star. "He had a great junior year.
"(Elliott) is an excellent leader by example. He's the best defensive player on the team."
The only other team that posted an above.-500 record last spring was Palmyra, which will be led by shortstop Miller. By playing up the middle for the Cougars, Miller, who hit .290 and showed some pop by connecting for a home run in '13, will be in charge of being a leader defensively, but it won't stop there.
"He's a hard worker and a quiet leader," Cougar skipper Tim Gingrich said of his shortstop. "They watch what he does, not so much what he says."
What follows is a capsule look at the seven high school baseball teams in Lebanon County:
Head coach: Scott Shyda, second season
Last year's record: 12-10
Players lost to graduation: Tanner Fitting, Nat Hughes, Cody Brightbill, Adam Connor, Daultyn Kline, Zachary Beard, Sawyer Reddinger, Casey Smith
Returning players: Mitch Rodkey, Sr., SS-P; Braden Elliott, Sr., P-inf.; Zack Southall, Sr., OF; Justin Ulrich, Sr., OF-P; Jordan Gohn Jr., P; Adam Bennett Jr., inf.; Taylor Prentice, Sr., OF-P; Caleb Setlock, Sr., 2B-OF; Robbie Beidler, Sr., 1B; Jason Hess, Sr., OF
Newcomers: Colton Long Jr., P-inf.; Derrick Fallinger, Jr., SS-P; Isaac Woelfling, Jr., inf.-OF; Tyler Runkel, Jr., inf.; Thorin Fuhrman, Jr., OF; Andrew Burris, Jr., 1B-OF; Hunter Long, So., C; Nick Hughes, So., C
Outlook: The Little Dutchmen qualified for the league and district playoffs in 2013 but lasted just one game in both tournaments. This year, A-C would like to stick around a little longer but will have its hands full after losing eight players to graduation.
"We have three solid pitchers with (Mitch) Rodkey, (Jordan) Gohn and (Braden) Elliott and a strong returning group of seniors," coach Scott Shyda said.
Elliott and Zack Southall were both named second team Section Four all-stars last spring.
Head coach: Ryan White, second season
Last year's record: 10-10
Players lost to graduation: Garrett Getz, Josh Hammaker, Mike Wealand, Efrain Velez
Returning players: Caleb Albright, Sr., C-3B; Conor Bawiec, Sr., P-inf.-OF; Devin Elder, Sr., 1B; Gage Ocker, Sr. P-OF; Hunter Wise, Sr., DH; Nick Gonzalez, Jr., 2B; Gavin Smith, Jr. OF; Kyle Bogdanovich, Sr., OF; Matt McCarrick, Sr., P; Hunter Torres, Jr., P
Newcomers: John Bailey, Jr., P; Cody Brewer, Jr., C-inf.; Austin Douple, Jr., P-inf.; Derek Hitz, Jr., P; Jared Hockley, Jr., OF; Skylar Krause, Jr., P; Chase Ocker, Jr., inf.; Diego Pacheco-McEvoy, Jr., P; Wes Wentling, Jr., OF
Outlook: After missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 season, the Falcons are looking to get back to playing into late May again.
"We return a lot of players who played key roles on last year's team," head coach Ryan White said. "Our pitching depth should keep us in every game and give our offense a chance to win. Section One is competitive every year, and we must come with energy and passion each day in order to compete."
Five seniors return to the starting lineup in South Lebanon, including Caleb Albright (C-3B), Conor Bawiec (P-utility), Devin Elder (1B), Gage Ocker (P-OF) and Hunter Wise (DH). Juniors Nick Gonzalez (2B) and Gavin Smith (OF) give the Falcons two more players who are back with varsity experience.
"Seniors must always take on leadership roles and lead the team on and off the field," White said. "Many juniors will also be asked to step up and play important roles. Everyone on this team must do their part if we expect to reach our goals."
Head coach: Chris Weidner, 16th season
Last year's record: 9-10
Players lost to graduation: Andrew Superdock, Adam Shoemaker, Chris Kreider, Ryan Weirback
Returning players: Cody Horst, Sr. C; Steven Rhoades, Sr., P-3B; John Gettle, Sr., 3B; Jake Stager, Sr., P-OF; Tyler Starry, OF; Grant Fisher, Sr., P-OF; Dylen Ziegler, Sr. P-OF; Travis Zimmerman, So. P-SS-2B; Phil Kline, Sr. OF; Colton Lawrence, So., inf.
Newcomer: Jack Mays, Jr., P-OF
Outlook: Graduation took some key personnel from the Raiders' lineup. Those seniors in 2013 helped turn a slow start that saw Elco begin the year 1-8 but finish on an 8-2 tear. Head coach Chris Weidner is hoping that late-season push will carry over to this spring.
"Last year we felt we should have been better than our record," Weidner said. "We started slowly and got better as the season progressed. This group has potential, but nothing is easy in Section Three."
In order to hang with Lampeter-Strasburg and Donegal in the section, Elco will need to pitch and field the ball well.
"We must rely on razor-sharp defense to back up the pitchers," Weidner added. "We have pitchers who will keep us in games if we play clean, razor-sharp defense."
Five starters are returning, leadership that will be vital in Myerstown.
"Cody Horst is the emotional heart and soul of the team," Weidner said. "Look out for Colton Lawrence. He is not just a basketball player. Jake Stager has been nipped with injury but provides emotional leadership as well."
Head coach: Robert Nordall, seventh season
Last year's record: 4-16
Players lost to graduation: Michael Medero, Wesley Dissinger
Returning players: Mark Pyles, Sr., C; Cameron Martin, Sr., P-OF; Heisler Jimenez, Sr., 2B; Orlando Gonzalez, Sr. OF-P; Danny Caricabeur, So., OF-P; William Scaturro, So., 3B; Brycen Loeper, Sr., utility; Luis Martinez, Sr., OF; Dylan Cramer, Sr., 1B; Christian DeLeon, Sr., OF-P; Daury Acevedo, Sr., inf.
Newcomers: Blayde Reich, Sr., OF-P; Kevin Schneck, Sr., 1B-P; Esteban Salgado, Jr., inf.; Justin Martin, Jr., P-1B; Oscar Minaya, Jr., 3B; Matt Klein, Jr., OF; Michael Deleon, So., P-inf.; Logan Blouch, So., P-utility
Outlook: The Cedars have been under rebuilding mode for several years, but with seven starters returning and multi-sport athletes like Cameron Martin, Mark Pyles and Blayde Reich on the roster, this could be the start of something positive in Lebanon.
"We have depth at every position," head coach Robert Nordall said. "It's the most pitching depth we've had in the last five years. We have great senior leadership, and the success of other sports is crossing over. We're functioning as one team."
Martin has "committed himself this offseason to hitting and pitching," Nordall added. "He has the most advance arm and maturity on the mound on our pitching staff."
Pyles returns as a four-year starter, and Danny Caricabeur was a second team Section Two all-star as a freshman last spring. Nordall is also looking at pitchers Reich, Orlando Gonzalez and Michael Deleon to provide stability on the mound, while Kevin Schneck will supply the power from the cleanup spot in the lineup.
Co-head coaches: John Gates and Glenn Meck, first season
Last year's record: 2-18
Players lost to graduation: Jose Lopez
Returning players: Chris Decker, Sr., P-SS; Drew Gates, Sr., 3B-SS; Matt Kern, Sr., P-3B; Jordan Meck, Sr., 2B; John Groh, Jr., LF; Joe Gates, So., CF-P; Noah Marinkov, So., 1B-P; Cole Connelly, So., OF; Greg Morrison, So., OF-C; Samuel Nye, So., OF; Kameron Shott, So., inf
Newcomers: Mike Marakowski, Sr., C; Marcus Rivera, Jr., OF-P; Alex Amerman, Jr., OF; Patrick Finley, Fr., OF; Nathan Dubble, Fr. OF; Jose Lopez, Fr., inf.; Ben Winters, Fr., OF; Alex Witmer, Fr., OF
Outlook: There's new leadership on Assumption Hill as John Gates and Glenn Meck have taken over for Scott Hargett. The duo inherits a team that won just two games in 2013 but has some experience coming back.
"We have a number of returning starters," Gates said, "especially four seniors who have at least three years varsity experience and some young players who received some valuable experience last year, who look pretty good."
The seniors are Chris Decker, Drew Gates, Matt Kern and Jordan Meck, and they'll carry the load trying to turn the Beaver program around.
"We are counting on (the seniors) to provide the necessary leadership that a young team needs to be successful," Gates said. "The four seniors are good, hard-working players who lead us in all offensive, defensive and pitching categories last year."
Like with most teams, pitching is a bit of a question mark for Catholic.
"Currently we have two pitchers who started at least 70 percent of our games last year," Gates said. "We have some good young arms, but they haven't been tested in game situations.
"We want to be competitive in the section and then do well in districts. The attitudes of the players are outstanding and they are ready to give 100 percent every game."
Head coach: Daryl Hess, 19th season
Last year's record: 4-16
Players lost to graduation: Ryan Kelliher, Tony Pesta, Jordan Anspach
Returning players: Drew Bene, Sr., C; Darrin Shirk, Sr., OF; Dave Brooks, Sr., OF; Dustin Bachman, Sr., OF; Ian Whitman, Sr., P-inf.; Jordan Nichols, Jr., P-inf.; Wyatt Beakler, Jr., P-inf.; Jon Walizer, Sr., utility; Brett Minnich, Sr., inf.; Zane Merkel, Jr., P-inf.; Luke Wentling, Sr., inf.; Nick Reinhardt, Sr., inf.
Newcomers: Luke Sonnen, Jr., C-OF; Chase Dubendorf, So., C-inf.
Outlook: The Vikings are looking to put last season's four-win season squarely in their rearview mirror and plan to use eight returning starters and nine seniors to do so.
"We were really, really young last year," head coach Daryl Hess said. "It's nice to have a group back that got some experience last year. ... We were either totally blown out of the game or we lost 5-2 or 5-3. It was a real roller coaster ride."
Among the returnees is the entire pitching staff, which will be led this spring by Ian Whitman, Wyatt Beakler and Jordan Nichols. Aside from Drew Bene, another player Hess is counting on is Darrin Shirk, who was the team's leadoff designated hitter in 2013 due to an arm injury but who will also be able to contribute in the field this season.
Competing in competitive Section Three will once again be a challenge for the Vikings, but winning league games is where it all starts.
"We always shoot for as best as we can in the section and then go from there," Hess said when asked about this year's goals.
Head coach: Tim Gingrich, 18th season
Last year's record: 11-10
Players lost to graduation: Bryce Betz, Tyler Morder, Mike Rothermel, Trey Baker, John Binner, Trent Filter
Returning players: Mitchell Sauley, Sr., P-inf.; Griffin Mitchell, Sr., OF; Bobby Dorta, Jr., P-inf.; Zach Miller, Jr., inf.; Anthony Faiola, Sr.; OF; Colin Gurt, Sr., inf.; Mike Arndt, Jr., P-inf.; Connor Gurt, So., P-OF
Newcomers: Logan Donough, Jr., P-inf.; Trevor Gill, Jr., P-OF; Justin Schilling, Jr., C; Evan Hallowell, So., P-OF; Tyler Julian, So., P-OF; Zach Yingst, So., C; Brandon Charochak, So., P-inf.; Nick Decarlo, So., C
Outlook: After one year away from the team, Tim Gingrich is back on the bench in Palmyra, replacing John Karavage, who is now the head coach at Milton Hershey. Gingrich inherits a young team that returns just four starters, so there will be a learning curve in 2014.
"We're going to get better as the year goes on," Gingrich said. "We're trying to get better each day and hopefully at the end we're playing our best ball."
Offensively, Zach Miller, Connor Gurt and Mitchell Sauley will be in charge of getting on base and scoring runs for the Cougars, while Sauley and Bobby Dorta will be the leaders of the pitching staff.
Gingrich sees Lower Dauphin, Mechanicsburg and Hershey as the top contenders in the Keystone Division, and if Palmyra can improve as the year progresses, he hopes his team will also be in the mix.
"Hopefully we can come in in the middle of the pack somewhere," he said.