STRUTHERS — As Struthers was departing its practice Thursday night, head coach Tom Otto felt a sense of confidence as he embarks on his second year at the helm of the program.
“One of the immediate things that we said is from 1-20, we look like a baseball team,” Otto said.
The Wildcats return eight lettermen and 12 players overall from 2022, a season in which they finished 9-17. That record included five losses decided by two runs or less.
But with increased depth both in the pitching rotation and up and down the lineup, the Wildcats are bullish on their chances in 2023.
“We look like we have some pitching depth that we were hoping to have (last year). Instead of hoping, we feel like we do have some more depth from the mound this year. We’re excited about the strides that our returning players have made. … We’re excited about the group,” Otto said.
The strength of the roster lies in the talented trio of Alec Grzyb, Chance Laczko and Olindo Pezzone, who will anchor the Wildcats’ pitching rotation this season and also fill most of the top half of Struthers’ lineup.
Those three also will be continuing their baseball careers at the college level, as Pezzone will play for Youngstown State, Grzyb will head to Walsh and Laczko will play at Bryant and Stratton.
Otto noted that Pezzone will “be as good as any pitcher in the area” and is approaching 90 mph with his fastball after bulking up during the offseason. Grzyb sits between 85 and 88 mph, Otto added, while Laczko sits in the low 80s but mixes pitches well and features high levels of command. In Struthers’ recent scrimmage, Otto said Laczko threw 42 strikes on 55 pitches.
“We feel comfortable with any one of those three guys, because they all bring something a little different to the table. It might just come down to matchups with certain teams or certain hitters. We’ll make those decisions in games to go with the best opportunity to win, but it starts with that core,” Otto said.
Behind them, freshman Michael Scavnicky, a lefty, figures to see some time on the mound in addition to his duties at first base.
In the batting order, Grzyb will lead off, Pezzone will go second and Laczko will bat third. Scavnicky will bat in the middle of the order, which Otto believes will allow Laczko to see more quality pitches this season because teams won’t be able to pitch around him. Grady Moore, who will roam centerfield, also will bat in the middle of the order, likely fifth.
In the bottom of the lineup, Anthony Pastella, Austin McCullough and Caleb Sakara will factor into things, while J.R. Hovanec and Aiden Mauro, who each lettered as freshmen last year, will see time, as will senior James Dechellis.
“We hope that they can kind of solidify the order for us,” Otto said of the group.
With the wealth of returning experience and improvement, the Wildcats feel they can compete with the top of the ever-challenging Northeast-8 Conference this year and make a push for the postseason.
To get there, Otto is stressing a fast start — something Struthers didn’t have a season ago when it began the campaign 0-4 with three narrow losses.
The season begins Monday against Lakeview, weather pending.
“That’s going to be a big series for us early, and then if we can get off to a good start and hopefully play some nonconference games, we’ll go into Poland after that,” Otto said.
He added, “We’ll approach (NE-8 play) like a football week. We want to win those conference games within that week, and then hopefully by the end of the season, we’re within a game or two with a chance to win a title.
“And then we’ll see where everything falls with the tournament run. I couldn’t think of anything better than to play down at Cene Park in district week with Struthers being in the semis and the finals. The community would really rally around this team and our kids.”