WHEELING - Wheeling Central followed up a 2011 state championship - Coach Jimbo Wodusky's fourth at the school - with a sub-.500 season and early sectional exit in 2012.
Despite a roster that has more freshmen than any other class, and even a few upper classes combined, Wodusky doesn't see that happening again.
"I haven't been this excited about a season in a few years," Wodusky said. "I just like they way they listen, the way they're willing to learn."
He says this freshmen class takes him back five years to a group that included a bunch of guys who grew together and left Wheeling Central as state champions.
These guys, he cautions, aren't there yet, speaking of a class that includes the likes of pitcher/outfielder Brian Campbell, first baseman/third baseman Brian Shaw, utility man Matt Gruber, second baseman/outfielder J.D. Griffith, and utility man Jeff Gywnn.
"I think with the juniors and seniors, if these freshmen and sophomores, who are first-time players catch on and relax and have fun with it, come tourney time we might surprise people," Wodusky said.
"Early on, we might take our licks."
Wodusky said on the whole, it's a confident group of kids with some legit baseball talent all over it. But he's cautious for a reason.
"I told them, 'you've been ahead of the game because you've been as good as or better than the guys you've played against. Now, playing against 17-18 year olds, it's going to pass you up.' ''
Still, this isn't just a group of newbies.
One place there is no question mark is behind the plate, where Derek Yocke grabbed the reins last season as a freshman and didn't let go, earning an All-Valley honorable mention nominee.
Left-handed senior pitcher Nick Naumann, who is reportedly getting Division-I looks, and junior Mario Peroni will be the top two pitchers in the rotation, according to Wodusky.
"I think with Naumann and Peroni," Wodusky said, "we're capable of playing with anybody."
Peroni benefited from a season of American Legion ball and Wodusky says he's got a chance to be "real good."
Justin Hammers, the team's other senior, is the everyday second baseman.
Nate Bakaitis is another sophomore who saw playing time, with his batting average pushing .300.
"I can put him anywhere on the field, and he might be the best anywhere I put him," Wodusky said.
Also back is junior C.J. Burch, a returning center fielder.
That leaves holes for potential freshmen starters from Game 1, so the learning curve will have to be swift.
As for those guys, Campbell, who was moved up to varsity for the postseason on Wheeling Central's Class A Final Four basketball team, might be the team's third-best pitcher, according to Wodusky. He's also an outfielder. Shaw might see time at first base. Gruber, who saw time at quarterback on the football team, can play just about any position, Wodusky says, and won't do anything to hurt you. He can play second, third, or in the outfield.
"Just depends on who is down that day," the coach said.
Joe Minor will play second base or in the outfield, while Gywnn is described by his coach as a pure athlete.
"He has all the tools you need," Wodusky said. "If he puts them in the right place, he's going to be a good one. He's got quick feet and very quick hands. He's going to be make a real good middle infielder one day."
Sophomore pitcher John McLaughlin may also wind up logging a few innings, according to Wodusky.
Among those lost to graduation were Anthony Tighe, Mic Keys, Andrew Keane, and Patrick Biega.
Assistant coaches at Wheeling Central are Keith Wodusky and Buck Droginski, with Noah Mull and Thomas Sengewalt, a pair of seniors on Jimbo Wodusky's first state title team (2005), helping out.