With seven baseball regional championships, three sectional titles and a pair of third-place finishes at state since 2005, big things are expected every spring from the O'Fallon Panthers.
"Every season that you don't go deep into the postseason is a a disappointment for our kids, and that comes with tradition and success," said O'Fallon coach Jason Portz, whose team was picked No. 1 by area coaches in the News-Democrat Class 3A-4A preseason rankings. "You've seen that with a lot of programs in our area and it's a good problem to have."
A seventh-inning grand slam by Granite City's Chad Spanberger gave O'Fallon (23-13) an early playoff exit a year ago, a regional semifinal loss that could help motivate the Panthers to bigger and better things.
Returning one of the Southwestern Conference's deepest pitching staffs and everyday lineups has to help a bit, too.
"This team has more depth than any team I've had," Portz said after the Panthers won their first three games. "We go deep at every position."
O'Fallon was ranked 29th in the state by PrepBaseballReport.com, while SWC rival Alton (41st) also made the Top 50.
The Panthers (3-0) have outscored their first three opponents 37-2, hammering Marquette (12-2), Anna-Jonesboro (15-0) and Harrisburg (10-0).
O'Fallon returns it top two starting pitchers in seniors Blake Deatherage and Tyler Herbert.
Deatherage (6-1, 2.76 ERA) signed with McKendree and is looking forward to improving on some already solid numbers from last season.
"He really had a breakout year last year for us and is much improved," Portz said. "He's a great worker; he goes about his business and leads by his actions."
Herbert was 4-5, but had an even lower ERA (1.95) and struck out 43 in 57 1/3 innings.
"We really wanted him to have the ball in our big games and some big opportunities last year," Portz said of Herbert, who will be used as a starter and reliever. "We really feel like we've got a 1A and a 1B with Herbert and Deatherage."
There could be a 1C as well with hard-throwing senior Jeff Hahs. Hahs, who signed with John A. Logan junior college, is considered "a potential super weapon for us," by Portz.
"He's got an outstanding arm and can run it up there at 88 to 90 (mph) and has developed his secondary stuff," Portz said. "He's the difference for us to be that potential dominant team that we could be."
Also looking for more innings is sophomore left-hander Bradley Harrison, a hard-hitting pitcher-outfielder who has already made a verbal commitment to Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"We really feel like he's going to be a top of the line No. 1 type guy in the future," said Portz, who also has juniors Chris Holba, Chris Dye and Grant Robison available.
Deatherage is also off to a monster start at the plate, going 5-for-7 with two doubles, a triple and seven RBIs.
Hahs (.370, eight doubles, three homers, 35 RBIs) is the top returning hitter and will play left field when not pitching. The other outfielders include Deatherage (.316, six doubles, 18 RBIs) and Dillon Weiss in center and Harrison (.277, six RBIs) in right.
Portz said senior Hayden Hewitt and junior Jacob Holl are splitting time at catcher. Sophomore Bradley Snyder will play first base.
"We think he has the potential to be a Division I type player in the future and a plus offensive player," Portz said.
Belleville East senior transfer Dean Gerros will see time at first and designated hitter. Gerros has five RBIs through three games.
Three-year varsity veteran and senior Collin Holton moves from shortstop to second base after hitting .322 last spring with nine doubles, 13 RBIs and 32 runs scored.
"He's a guy that sets the table for us and plays the game with a lot of enthusiasm," said Portz, who also may use Holton as a relief pitcher.
Sophomore Camden Bauer, coming off a strong football season as the Panthers' quarterback, takes over at short. Like Harrison, Bauer saw varsity at-bats as a freshman last spring.
"He's really put the time in to make himself stronger," Portz said.
Junior Kyle VanBevern, already 3-for-5 with four RBIs is the new starting third baseman.
"Our pitching is going to keep us in most games and I really like our ability to prepare and practice," Portz said. "They really work at the game."