The goal never changes for the Edwardsville High baseball team as the Tigers are searching for their sixth state tournament trip since 1999 and third state title.
What might seem like high expectations elsewhere are standard operating procedure for a program with eight 30-win seasons and more than 400 wins since Tim Funkhouser took over as head coach in 1999.
"I like our balance overall," said Funkhouser, whose club is coming off a 27-10 regional championship season that included a 10-4 record in the Southwestern Conference. "We have a pretty sound defensive team and I think we'll have a pretty balanced lineup."
A deep senior class headed by St. Louis University recruit Drew Curtis (.417, 12 doubles, six homers, 35 RBIs), senior catcher Alec Pizzini (.318, 10 doubles four triples, three homers, 26 RBIs) and Heartland College recruit Blake Graham (.298, two homers, 13 RBIs, 34 runs scored) should make the Tigers among the area's best once again.
Curtis is being counted on at third base, with first base and pitching also in his plans. He was 2-1 as a pitcher last spring with a 2.94 ERA in just 16 2/3 innings.
"We're going to count on him for a lot of production in the lineup and on the mound as well," Funkhouser said. "Pitching has always been a secondary thing for him, but this year is where we'll see what he has."
Graham, who stole 16 bases in 2012, will bat leadoff and play center field.
"He's really thriving," Funkhouser said. "Shortly after he committed to Heartland he started breaking out and settling in at the plate. He's in that mode right now where he's a threat to do a lot of things. He's improved immensely from last spring."
Senior Jordan Heckler (.350, seven doubles, 16 RBIs) return at shortstop and Pizzini belted a three-run homer to the opposite field Tuesday in the Tigers' season-opening 8-0 win over Greenville.
Junior Jacob Fisher (.337, 14 RBIs) will see time at second and third while junior Alex Meyers can play first base, outfield and pitch.
Speedy junior Austin Werner is in right field with junior Tyler Worthey and sophomore Matthew Zielonko vying for time in left. Sophomore infielder Jordan Hovey also is in the mix.
The coach also has been impressed by freshman infielder Jake Garella.
"You wouldn't pick him out as a freshman out there," Funkhouser said.
Senior Zack Sparks (6-3, 2.41 ERA) is the most experienced pitching returning on a staff that includes Curtis, Cole Hagen, Meyers and 6-foot-5 senior Bryce Cantrall, who transferred back to Edwardsville after attending Yorkville High last year.
Funkhouser said he is waiting on Illinois High School Association clearance before playing Cantrall, who attended Edwardsville as a freshman and sophomore.
Other mound candidates include senior Max Rolens, sophomore Matt Owens, senior Alex Lay, junior Brock Gulledge and sophomore Aaron Jackson.
Alton (25-10): Few SWC teams boast the depth and experience owned by the Alton Redbirds, who are off to a 3-0 start.
Senior catcher Brent Gibbs (.398, nine doubles, two homers, 32 RBIs) signed with Indiana and could be a potential draft pick in June. He was 6-for-13 in his first three games with two doubles, one homer and seven RBIs.
Alton was 10-4 in the SWC last spring and returns the bulk of their nucleus.
A deep pitching staff is headed by seniors Ray Bailey (8-1, 2.16 ERA), 6-4 lefty Brad Henry (2-3, 3.76 ERA), Charlie Howard (7-3, 1.66 ERA) and Ben Baldridge (3-1, 1.50 ERA).
There's also 6-foot-7 sophomore Bryan Hudson waiting to grab some innings.
Top hitters returning include senior infielder Clint Cress (.395, 15 RBIs), senior first baseman Nick Droste (.324, seven doubles, 17 RBIs) and senior outfielder Ron Wisnasky (.342, 10 RBIs, 37 stolen bases, 30 runs scored).
Collinsville (15-21): The Kahoks believe their pitching stacks up favorably with anyone in the conference, especially when 6-5 junior right-hander Tanner Houck (4-5, 2.53 ERA, 67 strikeouts in 58 innings) is on the mound.
Already committed to Missouri, Houck burst onto the conference scene last spring as a sophomore and immediately began turning heads and carving up lineups.
His fastball is hovering in the mid-80s mph range this spring and has been clocked as high as 88.
"For me it's exciting to have a kid you can run out there once a week that can be dominating," Kahoks coach Pete Trapp said. "He definitely had a breakout year last year, he put his name on the map to the conference. He's a special kid, he's got a lot of things going for him and does a lot of things well."
Trapp said Houck's final two choices were Missouri and Missouri State.
"He really liked the pitching coach at Missouri State, but he's been a big Mizzou fan his whole life," Trapp said. "I think he's really happy with his decision."
Trapp also has confidence in senior pitcher Paul Suess (.305, five doubles, 12 RBIs), a four-year starter at first base. Kyle Reeves and senior Missouri-St. Louis recruit Chris Mathes (3-0, 1.59 ERA) also will see time on the mound and is the starting shortstop.
Mathes led the Kahoks with a .365 average last season and also had nine doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs.
Zach Mathes (.348, five RBIs) is back in center field while senior catcher Briley Kellison missed most of last season because of knee surgery.
Granite City (14-22): Granite City boasts one of the top players in the conference in junior catcher Chad Spanberger (.314, seven doubles, three homers, 27 RBIs), who has already committed to Arkansas.
The Warriors also have two Southwestern Illinois College recruits in Jake Daily (.257, six doubles, 23 RBIs) and Jordan Askins (2-3, 2.45 ERA, 41 strikeouts in 40 innings) and a senior slugger in Brian Nemsky (.333, seven doubles, two homers, 20 RBIs).
Outfielder Dalton Kuehnel (.313, six doubles, 10 RBIs) also returns).