by Tom Ramstetter, Cincinnati Enquirer Contributor
It's all about the pitching for the top area high school baseball teams.
That is even more the case for a pair of state-tournament-tested teams that sit atop area polls and competition on the diamond begins this weekend.
Moeller, a Division I state semifinalist in 2014, returns six senior starters and has been voted No. 1 in the Enquirer Division I area coaches' poll. Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy was the state runner-up in Division III last season and sits atop the Enquirer Divisions II-IV poll.
Both teams return a lot of bats, but reaching the heights those squads achieved last season - or beyond - will begin and end on the mound.
"The starting pitchers, Nick Bennett and Grant Macciocchi will be key," Moeller coach Tim Held said. "Nick last year as a sophomore got into a number of games. He had a few starts and pitched out of our bullpen a bit, but just gained invaluable experience and then had a great summer and fall. So he has been throwing great. Grant, who is signed to play at Missouri, missed most of last season because of a back injury. But he's fine and he's been throwing great as well. To have those two back on the mound, it will be a veteran presence."
CHCA's top pitcher from last season, Cameron Varga, is now pitching in the Tampa Bay Rays system.
"Hitting wise, I think that's our strong point right now," CHCA coach Jeff Keith said. "I think we're going to put the ball in play very well and we're pretty deep as far as bats go. It's going to come down to defense and pitching, but I'm happy with what we have. We've got guys that have been there."
A somewhat inexperienced team came together at the right time for Moeller last season and the Crusaders surged through the postseason tournament. Now Held enters the 2015 season with an immensely experienced roster ready to take on a stacked Division I region.
"I think the experience has been huge for us," Held said. "Going into the 2014 season, we really only returned two guys who played a lot and everybody else was just getting their feet wet with varsity experience. We had so many then-juniors, now seniors, who played a lot of innings and got 40, 50, 60 at bats or more. They had a tremendous winter and we've really been hitting the ball well in our first three scrimmages. All the time they got last year was huge for us."
Bennett was 4-2 with a 2.31 earned run average in 2014 and Macciocchi had an ERA of 1.00 in limited action. Having both at the top of the rotation will be a plus for the Crusaders.
"We didn't really have a true No. 2 last year," Held said. "We were scoring just enough runs and playing good defense and making the right pitches at the right time."
Junior Kyle Butz hit .436 last season and will be the top bat back for the Crusaders. Butz will be in the infield or the outfield and hit at the top of the lineup, according to Held. Senior outfielder/first baseman Bryan Soth hit .364 in 2014. The Crusaders will also have senior infielders Kyle Dockus and Josh Hollander, senior catcher Bailey Montoya, senior pitcher/designated hitter Joe Vranesic, and senior outfielder Jordan Ramey back.
"Those guys all played a ton last year and they all seem to be in the running to be starters," Held said.
Mason is No. 2 in the Division I coaches' poll with Lakota West, Elder, Lakota East, Milford, Harrison, St. Xavier, La Salle, Hamilton and Oak Hills rounding out the top 10.
"Elder is always going to be tough," Held said. "They return Shane Smith who got us once or twice last year. La Salle returns Nick Ernst who beat us last year. So we know we'll see those guys at least once and maybe twice. I know Mason is going to be strong. They have a solid core. They've got Rodney Hutchison out there. Lakota East and West both have strong squads as well. I think it's going to be a strong year. There are a number of teams who have some good No. 1 pitchers."
Division I is loaded with deep and talented rosters.
"I like our depth at every position," Harrison coach Shawn Sowders said. "Our top three pitchers return, six position players return and they will be pushed to keep their positions in the lineup. We have experienced pitchers, and a solid group of hitters. I like their team-first attitude."
Keith was a bit surprised by the No. 1 ranking his CHCA club received, despite the experienced roster.
"We appreciate that, but we've got a lot of work to do," Keith said.
Seven CHCA players who were in the Division III state final last year are all back.
"Of course we lost Varga, (Kyle) Davis and (Ricky) Silvestri," Keith said. "But we're going to pick up at first base with Nick Harker, catching with John Edelmann who played third for us last year, and the pitching is always a question mark.
"The pitching is always going to be the issue."
Senior Graham Lally is likely to be the No. 1 starter for CHCA. Lally pitched in six games and struck out 22 in 23 innings. Junior John Noyen, senior Daniel Vezdos, Griffin Smith and junior David Jung will also be on the mound.
"So we have a little pitching," Keith said. "We have work to do. We're not going to hit the 90s, and we're just going to have to play good defense."
Rounding out the Division II-IV poll is Badin, Madeira, Wyoming, New Richmond, McNicholas, Summit Country Day, Fenwick, Monroe and Reading. [Read More]