Last season, the Boardman High School baseball team finished with 16 wins, half of which came inside the All-American Conference Red Tier.
That mark constitutes a successful campaign, but in Boardman, aspirations are a lot higher this season.
In 2016, the second-seeded Spartans were unable to ascend out of the district round of the state tournament after losing to Stow, 7-2, in the semifinal. However, winning the districts this year was one of the lofty goals set by head coach Joe Gabriel as his team gathered to get ready for the regular-season opener Saturday versus South Range.
"Our expectations, like every year, is to compete for a league title," Gabriel said. "We really feel like we have a good enough group to get out of the districts for the first time in a while."
One reason Gabriel is expressing confidence is his potentially deadly lineup. From top to bottom, Boardman can beat an opposing pitching staff in so many different ways.
"We have a nice balance offensively," he said. "We have the potential for a nice hitting lineup."
Spearheading the Spartans' attack will be senior letter winner Coleman Stauffer. He hit .388 as a junior and he should be even stronger as a senior.
Also returning are seniors Gaven Strines and Nick Stamp. Strines is an outfielder who returns with the most team RBIs from a season ago with 18. He also had a lofty .316 batting average.
Stamp was right behind Strines in the RBI department with 16 and had a team-leading seven doubles. Both seniors should settle nicely in the middle of Gabriel's batting order.
Making things better for Boardman is the that hot hitters don't end with the senior class. Boardman has a bevy of juniors who also will be counted on to provide some punch this year.
Outfielder Dom Stilliana is a returnee that had a super sophomore season. Luke Cardillo is another outfielder that returns with the most triples on the team. Catcher / third baseman Evan Knaus also will see plenty of time in the starting lineup.
Having solid hitters from both the senior and junior class exemplifies the excitement Gabriel has when he speaks of his offense.
"We have a nice mix of seniors and younger guys," Gabriel said.
The fourth-year coach's mood turns a little sour when he discusses the Spartans' pitching rotation for 2017. The Spartans lost some good hurlers from last year's group and are short on big-game knowledge this year.
"After a couple of really good seniors, we are inexperienced," Gabriel said.
The one senior who could be considered an ace is Stauffer. He had a 1.64 ERA as a junior. Four other seniors that should also see time on the hill this season are Nick Augustine, Noah Land, Bobby Mackovick and Sean Sullivan.
Gabriel does have the luxury of dipping into his junior class and choosing Alex Cardona to take the ball as well. Besides Stauffer, Cardona is probably Boardman's best starter. He had a 14 Ks in limited starting pitching appearances in 2016.
A few other names to watch in Gabriel's pitching plans are Jared Wilson, Both Toth, Cam Kreps and Dylan Gurski.
Whoever takes the mound for the Spartans will have comfort in knowing a couple of strong defenders will be behind him. Mike Melewski and Travis Henry formed a very capable keystone combination for Boardman a year ago and are back to bolster Boardman's defense this spring.
"We are looking to get a lot out of our middle infield of Melewski and Henry," Gabriel said.
After visiting South Range to open the season, the Spartans will get a quick Red Tier test from Austintown Fitch. The Falcons should be strong this spring, but Poland is the top dog in the conference.
Boardman will get its chance at beating the Bulldogs in a home-in-home series the first two days of May. By that time, Gabriel believes his pitching should be settled in and his boys will be playing for a Red Tier title.
"We have a good group of seniors and some key returning starters," Gabriel said. "This group should be good enough (to contend)."