At this time last year, Althoff Catholic High School's varsity baseball team was headed into the season with high expectations.
In a disappointing end to the 2013 season, Althoff lost to Carlyle in the regional championship game. The loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of the returning players, and they hope to make a much deeper run into the playoffs in 2014.
With six returning starters on the 2014 varsity baseball roster, the outlook glows brighter going into this season. The senior leaders returning to the team include Luke Frazier likely anchoring down the middle infield at shortstop; Grant Strieker stepping in to fill a hole at third base; Jake Fischer competing for a second base spot; Erik Mertens behind the plate handling the pitching staff; and Josh Davinroy and Tyler Schmid taking key spots on the pitching staff.
Colin McClellan, an outfielder who transferred from Virginia, is predicted to play a key role in the Crusaders' success. These returning seniors will be expected to lead the Althoff team throughout the spring and into the playoffs.
Several juniors will also be asked to step up. Sam Haudrich, Ben Hankammer, Austin Keen and Casey Arnold should see considerable playing time. Haudrich, one of the fastest leadoff hitters in the metro-east, will anchor center field after a spectacular sophomore season on the varsity team. Ben Hankammer and Austin Keen will also play key roles on the pitching staff.
Casey Arnold will be competing for a starting spot at second base and may be asked to step into a designated hitter role, as well as the third outfield spot. Connor O'Dell, Connor Christenson, Sean McGinty and Seth Bertlesman, all juniors, may be asked to contribute to the team in various utility roles.
Last year, a big challenge was pulling out important conference victories. With a record of 3-6-1 in conference play last year, the 2014 Crusaders hope to be a much bigger threat in the South 7 Conference.
The team also hoped to improve in head-to-head competition with the Belleville public schools. The Crusaders lost a heartbreaker to Belleville West 2-1 and were unable to play Belleville East due to rainouts in 2013. This season, Althoff hopes to be able to pull out victories against both of the city rivals and take bragging rights over the two public powerhouses.
Although the team has lots to hope for in 2014, one dream ranks above any other: a state championship. The last time the Althoff Crusaders brought back a baseball state title to Belleville was in 1992.
The Crusaders' season begins March 21 in Marissa. On March 25, the Crusaders will play host to New Athens at Whitey Herzog Field for their home opener, and they hope fans will be able to make it out to help welcome in the upcoming season.