A year ago, the Wesclin Warriors were seeded last in their Class 2A baseball regional, then suddenly caught fire and didn't stop winning until they reached the state tournament in Peoria.
This spring they drew the No. 1 seed at the Class 2A Althoff Regional and will be sneaking up on no one when the teams gather at Belleville's Whitey Herzog Field.
"It's different than last year, but anybody can beat anybody," said Wesclin coach John Groennert, whose 20-7 team has won 10 of its last 13 games and also won the Cahokia Conference-Mississippi Division championship. "We proved that last year."
Groennert has several players remaining who were key contributors during the Warriors' magical state tourney run.
"It was fun, everything kind of fell into place," Groennert said. "We went from being under .500 to going to state -- and that's something that doesn't happen very often."
Wesclin is led by talented 6-foot, 5-junior shortstop Michael Klein (.420, 11 doubles, one homer, 21 RBIs, 27 runs).
"He's a competitor," Groennert said. "He's gifted and he's got tools and has been doing a great job for us. He's one of the best players in the area."
The Warriors also feature seniors Keith Haselhorst (.383, 19 RBIs), Alex Quitmeyer (.367, eight doubles, four homers, 29 RBIs), Chase Klein (.322, four homers, 15 RBIs) and Brett Mammenga (.295, seven doubles, three homers, 20 RBIs).
Grant Weber (6-2, 2.235 ERA) and Ryan Meddows (6-0, 2.06 ERA) are the top pitchers.
Groennert isn't alone among regional coaches who believe that up to five teams have a legitimate chance to win the title. At the top of the list after Wesclin are No. 2 seed Carlyle and No. 3 Althoff.
"We've been fortunate to get by them twice," Groennert said of Carlyle (22-7), a conference rival Wesclin beat 5-3 and 4-1. "They're deep on the mound, they're athletic and Althoff's loaded with pitching. They're all out there. I think any one of five teams could really win it."
Althoff (12-14) has struggled with consistency all season, but coach Brett Isaacs hopes a tough schedule and playing at home will benefit the Crusaders.
They have a pair of pitching aces in senior Bryce Richter (6-3, 0.90 ERA) and Ben Hankammer (3-1, 1.63 ERA).
"Both of those kids have thrown well all year and have been really consistent," Isaacs said. "They've been able to keep good ballclubs within reach every day and that's all you can ask for."
A year ago, Althoff was Wesclin's first playoff victim.
"We've shown all year that we can compete with anybody," Isaacs said. "We haven't come out on top enough or as much as we'd like. But we've been in just about every game and with our schedule that says a lot about us."
Althoff's top hitters have been Sam Haudrich (.400, two homers, eight RBIs), Luke Frazier (.329, seven doubles, 12 RBIs), Richter (.319, 10 RBIs), Grant Strieker (.303, 13 RBIs) and Atlee Champion (.267, 11 doubles, 15 RBIs.)
Carlyle has as much or more pitching depth as any team in the regional with Logan Zachry (4-1, 1.15 ERA), Cody Huels (5-3, 1.54 ERA), Matt Hilmes (5-1, 1.75 ERA) and John Becker (3-1, 2.237 ERA).
Like Wesclin, Carlyle also has a deep lineup led by McKendree recruits Tyson Boehne (.374, 10 doubles, 18 RBIs) and Kyle Jackson (.351, nine doubles, 18 RBIs), Hilmes (.365, eight doubles, three triples, 27 RBIs) and John Becker (.300, nine doubles, four homers, 22 RBIs).
The regional kicks off with a 4 p.m. game today at Central between the host Cougars (9-14) and rival Mater Dei (11-9).
Gibault's early-season momentum has been derailed by inconsistency that coach Andy Skaer hopes will go away once the postseason begin.
The Hawks (18-11) are the No. 1 seed at the Okawville Regional and are looking to repeat as regional champions.
"We've been scuffling our feet ever since the Columbia win," Skaer said of a 10-0 victory on April 26 that was followed up by a 2-5 record down the stretch. "We played some good teams, but primarily it's been our offense. We've just been inconsistent."
Gibault usually doesn't need much offense when dominant junior Zach Neff (4-2, 1.84 ERA, 49 strikeouts in 38 innings) is on the mound.
Hawks pitcher Austin Beccue (3-2, 3.13 ERA) owns wins over Freeburg, Pinckeyville, Belleville East.
Junior shortstop Wes Degener (.439, seven doubles, four triples, 20 RBIs) helps drive the offense along with senior Matt Schreder (.372, five doubles, 23 RBIs), Auggie Ward (.362, 18 RBIs) and Chandler Purcell (.356, six doubles, 17 RBIs).
Degener's return from a finger injury during basketball has been a huge part of the season.
"He missed about the first eight games and since he's been back he's been our best hitter and most consistent player," Skaer said.
Freshman Jordan McFarland (.313, four homers, 11 RBIs) homered in four straight at-bats earlier this season.
New Athens (12-12) and Valmeyer (10-15) battled it out on the Kaskaskia Division side of the Cahokia Conference and both teams have enough pitching to challenge Gibault for the title.
Gibault beat New Athens 3-2 and defeated Valmeyer twice, 6-5 and 14-5. New Athens and Valmeyer meet in the semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.