As the defending Class 1A state baseball champions with most of the pitching staff and lineup returning, expectations are through the roof for the Gibault Hawks.
Coach Andy Skaer's club won the school's first baseball state title last season, finishing 24-6 led by News-Democrat 1A-2A Player of the Year shortstop Wes Degener, Austin Peay State pitching recruit Zach Neff and outfielder Mitch Meyer.
"You definitely have some confidence because of what you did in the past," said Skaer, whose team is 3-1 in 2014. "This team has to figure out their way to put their own stamp on this season. We'll get everybody's best effort and see some pretty good pitching, too. We're not going to sneak up on anybody, that's for sure."
Nor should they be able to with so much returning, leading to area coaches picking the Hawks first in the News-Democrat 1A-2A preseason rankings.
But all that experience guarantees is a chance to do well again in the postseason with the Hawks moving up from 1A to 2A this spring.
"I think they're hungry to have another nice postseason run," Skaer said, pointing to the baseball and soccer state championships won by the current juniors and seniors along with a sectional championship in basketball. "In my 10 years at Gibault, this is the hardest-working group I've seen."
Skaer is proud of his players' versatility with many starring in two and sometimes three sports at Gibault.
"In this day and age of people pushing kids to specialize younger and younger, it's becoming much more rare," he said.
Degener signed with Division II Lindenwood-St. Charles and is looking to build upon his Player of the Year numbers from a year ago.
He hit .500 with 10 doubles, four triples, one home run, 27 RBIs, 25 walks and 34 runs scored, striking out just seven times in 107 plate appearances.
He also had a .626 on-base percentage and .763 slugging percentage.
"He's one of the best athletes to go through Gibault in the last 25 years," Skaer said. "I'm really excited to see what he does at the collegiate level when he just focuses on one sport and spends all of his time and attention there."
Neff, the ace of the pitching staff and a first-team All-Area pick last season, has added size and strength. He was 8-2 with a 1.91 ERA and struck out 90 in 66 innings.
"He's got good velocity; he's got very good control for a high school pitcher and he's not afraid to attack hitters," Skaer said. "But I think his best asset is how determined and how much of a gamer he is. When you put the ball in his hands, he's one of the most competitive guys I've ever had."
The mound staff includes second-team All-Area senior right-hander Austin Beccue (6-2, 2.22 ERA, 62 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings), and seniors Auggie Ward (1-1, 2.24 ERA), Chase Dugan (3-1) and Nick McBride (2-1).
Skaer said Beccue is receiving interest from Southwestern Illinois and Parkland junior colleges and also Webster University.
There's also a pair of freshmen with varsity potential in Trevor Davis and Tyler Brinkmann.
Senior catcher Ryley Wallin (.306, 13 doubles, two homers, 26 RBIs) returns along with Ward (.341, five doubles, 22 RBIs) at first base.
Ward is 6-for-14 (.429) this season with a home run and six RBIs.
Junior Chandler Purcell (.368, eight doubles, 21 RBIs) returns at second base and already has four doubles and six RBIs.
Sophomore Jordan McFarland (.294, four homers, 11 RBIs) is hitting cleanup and figures to be used at third base along with Dugan (.235, four doubles, 15 RBIs).
Skaer said McFarland, who has homered twice in four games and is already receiving Division I interest, may also see time at first and the outfield.
"Even though he's only a sophomore he's going to be a known quantity really quickly," Skaer said.
Meyer (.352, 12 doubles, three triples, 15 RBIs, 47 runs scored, 21 stolen bases) is back for his third year as an outfield starter after earning first-team All-Area honors in 2013.
Also in the outfield mix are Neff (.268, 15 RBIs) and Beccue (.304, 12 RBIs) when not pitching, plus seniors Josh Brinkmann and Kyle Mechler.
Junior Alec Skaer (.357) will see time at catcher and in the outfield.