BELOIT - Last season, the West Branch baseball team fell two wins short of its 11th-straight winning season with a 13-14 mark. This year, the Warriors' first order of business is to get back to their winning ways.
"Having had a losing record last season, finishing one game under .500, our first goal is finish with a winning record," West Branch co-head coach Walt DeShields said.
"We want to compete. We want to compete in the always tough NBC and in our non-league games as well. For 10 years in a row, we finished with a winning record. We want to get back to that this year."
To do so, the Warriors are relying on a blend of returning and new talent. West Branch returns four seniors, four juniors and three sophomores and welcomes four freshmen players. Included among them are last season's starting shortstop, third baseman, right fielder and center fielder, as well as the No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers. West Branch lost three starters from last season - catcher Brennan Haynes and first baseman Brandon Carver who graduated and second baseman Zach Wyss who transferred to Alliance. The Warriors also lost role players in 2011 seniors Taylor Pidgeon and Scott Rinaldi.
"We lost a couple key players, but we have a good mix of experience and promising young players," DeShields said. "Still, we're a growing team. We're relying on (Brendan) Wells and (Matt) Unkefer to step up and lead us early while the younger guys get some experience. We're relying on those two to help bring the younger players along."
Wells - a junior - was a First Team All-NBC selection and earned a spot on the All-Ohio Division II First Team as a sophomore center fielder. The Division I prospect batted .563 and set a new school record in stolen bases with 35.
Unkefer was an All-NBC Second Team pick and is the only returning senior starter. Last season, he played right field and came through big at the plate. This season, Unkefer will likely move to second base and his bat will again be a key factor in the Warriors' success.
The other two returning starters in the field are junior Beau Taylor (third base) and sophomore Jacob Clayton (shortstop).
On the mound, West Branch returns sophomore ace Jeff Viczuso and senior Jake Mull, the second thrower in the West Branch rotation.
"We expect Jeff to do real well this season," DeShields said. "As a freshman, he was our No. 1 and finished with a 4-2 record. He throws in the 80's, around 86. He's a talented right-handed pitcher and he'll be our No. 1 guy in league games again this season.
"Jake is one of the guys competing for left field. Last year, it was kind of a revolving door there. This year, he's competing for that spot, but it'll be nice to have him back on the mound."
Freshmen lefty Nate Coy joins the pitching rotation and could see action in the outfield.
Other players expected to fill roles this season are seniors Josh Fuson (pitcher/outfield) and Cody Hinkle (first base/DH), junior Zach Ruggles (catcher), sophomore Ryan Adams (catcher/outfield) and freshmen Kip DeShields (first base/pitcher), Jake Smith (catcher) and Chipper Tule (pitcher/outfield).
"All of those guys are working hard," DeShields said. "And all of them are competing for a starting spot."
If his returning players pick up where they left off last season and his younger players continue to work hard and improve, a winning season could just be the start of the team's accomplishments.
"Winning an NBC championship is definitely a goal," DeShields said. "It always is and we know how tough that can be. The NBC is great conference. The traditional baseball teams like Alliance, Marlington, Louisville and Canton South always do well and they go on to do well in in the tournament. And you have other teams who step up, teams like Minerva who has a lot of returning players back this season. We've won the Youngstown District two of the last four years and the year before last we faced Marlington in the first round of the regionals. That's two NBC teams. That says a lot."
The Warriors non-league schedule isn't any easier. West Branch will plays perennial powerhouses Cardinal Mooney and Canfield. They hope to one day include four-time state champion Walsh Jesuit to the slate.
"We want our kids to see those teams, teams like Walsh Jesuit," DeShields said. "If we want to get to Columbus, that's the kind of teams we have to go through. We don't want to hide. We want to play those teams. Playing those teams make you better."
DeShields is in his second season as the co-head coach of the Warriors. Shawn Alazaus is the other man in charge of the West Branch program. The two - along with assistants Rick Mulinix, Scott Lowden and Gary Martin - make the most of the unique situation.
"It's different having two head coaches but it works," DeShields explains. "It allows us to do what each does best and the kids benefit. I played college baseball at Marietta. Shawn played at Ohio Northern and we both played minor league baseball in the Class A league. And Rick is a West Branch graduate and played ball at Mount Union. We have a very capable staff with a lot of baseball knowledge and the situation just works."
The Warriors open the season March 24 in doubleheader action with Southeast at home. West Branch scrimmages North Canton Hoover today at home.