“Realistically, it’s going to be a tough season for us, and they know that,” said Oelke, who has compiled a 103-47 record through seven seasons.
“If we can win the games we should win, and then steal a couple of games from teams that overlook us or look past us, we’ll be all right.”
The challenge begins on offense. The six graduated seniors hit a collective .355; the eight returning players combined for a .281 average.
The latter takes into account Tyler Ediger, who hit .400 a year ago as a freshman with 14 hits in 35 at-bats and 11 runs batted in. The only other returner with double-digit RBIs last season is junior Isaac Leihy, who drove in 11 runs while batting .211.
“We’re not an overly fast team, so we’re really going to have to try to manage the game well offensively,” Oelke said. “But if we’re not able to get leadoff runners on at the start of each inning, then we really get handcuffed on what we can do.
“If the first kid gets out, and the 2-hole guy gets on—that’s great, but with one out it really limits how effectively we can try to play small ball. We’re really going to have to be smart, base-running-wise—which is a concern too because of inexperience.”
The Trojan “veterans” list includes one senior, two juniors and five sophomores.
“This probably is the youngest team we’ve ever had,” Oelke said. “Even going back to the 1999 season, our inaugural year, we still had a fairly large upper-class group.”
Physical development is one of the challenges inherent in a team dominated by underclassmen.
“Arm strength—it’s just another product of maturity,” Oelke said. “Our corner spots are open right now. We don’t know who we’re putting at first and who we’re putting at third.”
Baseball savvy is another challenge.
“What is probably going to hurt us as much as anything from the guys we lost and what we have in terms of freshmen is probably just baseball IQ—knowing situations well,” Oelke said.
“For instance, if we have runners at first and third with one out and the ball is hit at us, or a kid lays down a bunt, what do we want to do?
“It’s just the indecisiveness—which you can’t chalk up to anything else but inexperience. So that will be an issue.”
With run support likely hard to come by, good defense will particularly important for this team, Oelke said.
“We’re going to give up some things this year, where last year we could have made some plays,” he said. “But if we can keep the ball in front of us and not boot a lot of balls, that will be as big a thing as anything.”
Defense begins with pitching. Oelke lost 65 of the 109 innings pitched last season through graduation, but he does return four players with mound experience: Daniel Jost, Leihy, Jacob Fish and Ediger, plus a couple of freshmen who will be called upon to contribute.
If weather allows games to be played according to schedule, Oelke feels he’ll have the arms to get through the season. But if games begin to stack up because of rainouts, the outlook changes.
“With 12 kids, probably five of whom I would say are actual pitchers—not starters, per se, but pitchers—it’s going to be tough,” Oelke said. “We’re going to have kids who throw for us that aren’t naturally pitchers. We’re just going to have to make do.”
As the opener nears, Oelke said Leihy and Jacob Edwards as No. 1 and No. 2 in his rotation, with Fish and freshman Dylan Delk pegged as No. 3 and 4. Between them, they threw 17 varsity innings last season.
“Dylan, despite being a freshman, has actually shown some ability to spot his pitches,” Oelke said.
“We’re not going to blow the ball by anyone this year, so the key thing is going to be keeping the ball low in the strike zone,” he added.
“If we can get the other team to hit a lot of ground balls and not hit a lot of gap balls on us, that will help us.”
With two of the stronger arms on the team, Fish (a .250 hitter last season) and Edwards (no varsity at-bats) will likely play third and first, respectively, when they’re not on the mound, Oelke said.
Jost (.264, 14 hits), in his third year as a starter, is “pretty well locked in” at shortstop, with Chris Couts (.286, seven at-bats) manning second base.
The leading outfield candidates, from left field to right field, are Devin Funk (.400, five at-bats), Leihy and senior Mitchell Koop (.240, 25 at-bats).
The anchor behind the plate will be freshman Aaron Bina, who also will be throwing middle relief on occasion.
Amid the challenges, Oelke did underline one positive note.
“Because of our numbers and our youth, a lot of guys are going to play,” he said. “That’s a good thing. We’ll only lose one kid off this year’s team. Next year we’ll be talking about a whole new package of potential.”
Looking to the league, Oelke sees strong teams coming from Wichita Collegiate, Nickerson, Marion, Smoky Valley, Hoisington and Lyons. He sees his team being on par with Little River, a non-league school in its first year of baseball.
“We’re just going to have to come out and compete hard every night,” Oelke said. “If the kids compete hard, we’re going to be happy with that.”
At the same time, Oelke isn’t looking for moral victories.
“I’m not going to sing that song to any of my guys if we get beat 5-3 by a team that should beat us 10-3,” he said. “Really, a loss is a loss.
“We’re really going to try preach more that for us, ‘victory’ is going to be determined by how we play defensively, and did we do a better job of making contact or did we strike out 10 times?
“Those are going to be the things we’re going to have to really focus on.”
Hillsboro is scheduled to open its season Friday against Wichita Collegiate at Memorial Field. The first game is set for a 4:30 p.m. start.