The biggest change coach Matt Koenig his team will face will be the jump in competition. The Cardinals say good-bye to Division II, which they conquered last season, and hello to Division I. When tournament time comes around, no longer will the Cardinals stare into the opposite dugout and see the traditional local and conference rivals they’ve done battle with for years. Instead they will see the upper echelon of baseball powers in Northeast Ohio, such as Austintown Fitch, Lakewood St. Edward and Mentor.
The Cardinals believe they will be ready for the test once the tournament comes around, thanks in part to the success they achieved last season. Winning a state title will always widen the target placed on a team, but the Cardinals are making that a positive factor.
“Right now, we’re pushing the guys pretty hard knowing we’ve had a bulls-eye on our back before, and now this really elevates that,” said Koeing. “We are number one on a lot of people’s schedule, and I’m glad. The better competition we play and knowing a lot of teams will throw their number one (pitcher) against us, the better off that makes us come tournament time.”
Koeing will admit that his team still is on a high from winning it all last season, and he and his team enjoy being known as defending state champions. However, the transition this year into Division I will go a long way in rebuilding the hunger in this year’s club.
“One thing I’ve stressed is that we’re no longer playing the teams we see in our league on a regular basis,” said Koenig. “Now we’re gonna see Austintown Fitch, St. Eds, St. Ignatius, North Royalton. We’re going to see teams like that and I’ve been stressing in the off season that we’ve gotta work that much harder to compete with schools like that because we’re barely over the D-I minimum and we’re gonna play schools twice or even three times are size. It will be a challenge right from the start in the sectional this year.”
Canfield returns 10 lettermen, but only three of the nine starters from last year’s state final. Included in the holes the Cardinals need to fill are several key areas on the diamond, specifically up the middle. Lost to graduation are last year’s starting catcher, shortstop and centerfielder.
To fill those gaps, Koenig is looking to both his returning players, and new members to the flock. Mark Carrocce, last year’s second basemen and lead off hitter, could make the move to shortstop, and John Manzoian, an outfielder last year, could also move into the infield. The other returning starter is junior Dan Banna, who will hold down the hot corner at third base.
On the mound, the Cardinals lose their top two pitchers from last season, including Drew Turocy who’s now suiting up for the University of Akron. However, Koenig believes the staff is in good hands. Looking to take over on the mound is Brian Fox, who was 5-0 pitching last year as a junior; Jake Kucek, who got the win in last year’s state final and who’s father pitched in the major league with the White Sox; and the next Turocy in the lineage, Jared Turocy.
“We got a number of guys who I think are ready to step in to that role, whether it be a starting pitcher or long relief, or the one place we’re looking is someone to close games for us,” said Koening. “Last year we had Jake Kucek or if we were in a really big pinch Drew could come in and shut the door. We’re really looking for someone to mold into that role there.”
Despite the turnover in the lineup, Koenig believes experience will be a cornerstone of his team, and that experience goes beyond the play on the field, and includes players who have already experienced the D-1 transition.
“Moving into the Division 1 level … many of our guys don’t just play baseball,” explains Koenig. “They play either football, who went deep in the playoffs this year and in years past, or basketball which also moved (into Division I). Seeing how well they played, shows them how tough Division I is compared to Division II.”
To get his team postseason ready, Koenig has put together a schedule that should prepare the Cards for the bump up..
“We have built a schedule over the past couple of years that has been difficult and this year it’s even more difficult,” said Koenig. “We schedule it that way, hoping that will prepare us for any tournament, including Division I.”
Appearing on the Cardinals’ schedule are teams they could likely see in the sectional or district including Warren Harding, Boardman and Austintown Fitch. Canfield also has doubleheaders with Canton GlenOak and Massillon Washington. Match ups with traditional powers Youngstown Ursuline and Walsh Jesuit also loom.