BELLEVILLE — Good poker players always love to see aces coming their way, but that hasn't been the case for the Althoff Crusaders baseball team in recent years.
Beating opponents' pitching aces has been an issue that coach Brett Isaacs would like to see eradicated this spring.
"We have to show that we can beat a good pitcher," said Isaacs, whose club opens the season with a 4 p.m. game Friday in Marissa. "If we can, it takes so much pressure off of your own pitcher and defense."
The Crusaders were 14-16 a year ago and lost to Carlyle in the Class 2A regional semifinals. They return good depth up the middle and have enough pitching and offense to improve on their 2013 record.
"This group, so far, has shown good passion and competitive spirit," Isaacs said. "If they continue to do that, they could build into a nice ballclub."
Among the five returning starters are junior outfielder and leadoff man Sam Haudrich (.389, two triples, two home runs, 17 stolen bases, eight RBIs), senior catcher Eric Mertens (.280, two home runs, nine RBIs), junior first baseman Ben Hankammer (.286), senior second baseman Grant Strieker (.277, four doubles, 16 RBIs), senior shortstop Luke Frazier (.305, eight doubles, 15 RBIs)
Strieker and Frazier are both being counted on as run producers.
"They always say you want to be strong up the middle and that's where we have the most returning," Isaacs said.
The speedy Haudrich struck out only twice in more than 100 plate appearances last season.
"He has game-changing speed and gets down to first base extremely quickly," Isaacs said. "He adds pressure to the other team any time he's in the batter's box or on base. He adds a lot to our offense, too."
Isaacs also is hoping for big things from senior outfielder Collin McClellan, a transfer who also was a starter on the football team.
"He swings the bat very well and the ball jumps off his bat," Isaacs said. "He has good speed and when he gets on base he can run a little bit."
The outfield also includes junior Casey Arnold, who will play second when Strieker pitches, and junior Connor O'Dell.
The biggest hole to fill was vacated by Bryce Richter, a three-year starter who was the team's No. 1 pitcher and clean-up hitter.
Hankammer is the top returning pitcher after the junior left-hander was 3-2 as a sophomore with a 2.38 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings. He walked only seven.
"It's his control," Isaacs said. "To walk seven in 41 innings is saying quite a bit and he's got good command of his pitches and himself. He's smart; he knows how to pitch and thinks one pitch ahead."
Senior Tyler Schmid offers promise despite coming off arm surgery, while Strieker also figures heavily in the pitching mix. Senior Adam Davinroy pitched in 15 of the team's 30 games last season, adding more versatility as a reliever or spot starter along with junior Austin Keen.
Isaacs said the South Seven Conference is loaded with pitching and hitting talent again, with Mount Vernon and Centralia among the favorites.
"I'm not sure where we belong yet, but I know the conference could be as good as I've seen it since we've been in it," he said. "It should be extremely competitive."