Even when the Edwardsville Tigers are hit hard by graduation, as they were coming into 2014, there is no such thing as a "rebuilding season."
A down year for Edwardsville means not winning a regional and sectional or finishing second in the Southwestern Conference.
Consistent winning has been a hallmark of the program for decades and includes a pair of state championships, two runner-up finishes and a state-record 64-game winning streak.
The top-ranked Tigers have blazed their way to a 20-4 record this season, including an 8-1 mark in Southwestern Conference play. Edwardsville handed second-ranked O'Fallon an 11-1 loss, the Panthers' only SWC defeat this season.
"I think we've played pretty well," downplayed Edwardsville coach Tim Funkhouser, whose team had to replace four Division I players. "I go into the season trying to focus on us trying to get one game better or one practice better and not thinking about how it all might play out. We've got a lot of different areas to work on, but I'm happy where we've been and where we're heading."
The Tigers have gotten huge offensive contributions from junior infielder Aaron Jackson (.455, one homer, 22 RBIs), junior catcher Brock Weimer (.413, nine doubles, three homers, 23 RBIs) and Kaskaskia College recruit and senior outfielder Austin Werner (.377, three homers, 18 RBIs).
"Weimer's been our steady force and definitely Jackson's been solid in the 4-hole," Funkhouser said. "Werner's bounced between the No. 2 and No. 5 slot, but he's quick and versatile. We've had a lot of balance throughout our order, but those guys have gotten the key hit and some extra base hits for us, too."
Funkhouser said Weimer has been a known quantity since sticking with the varsity as a freshman. He got valuable experience last season as well backing up Alec Pizzini.
"After last summer he was our most consistent defensive player as well as offensively," Funkhouser said of Weimer. "He's really emerged offensively and he was a solid player even before then."
Sophomore infielder and designated hitter Jake Garella (.299, 18 RBIs) has been another run producer along with versatile senior infielder Jacob Fisher (.310, nine RBIs), Collin Clayton (.362) and Fahd Shakeel (.359).
Several question marks on the pitching staff have emerged to create a solid nucleus.
Senior Alex Meyers was 6-0 with a 0.56 ERA before being shut down for a week with tendinitis. Junior Daniel Lloyd (5-0, 0.47 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 30 innings), Jackson (3-2, 1.34 ERA) and junior Jordan Hovey (0-1, no earned runs in 15 innings) are getting the job done, too.
"I think our pitching depth has been a positive," Funkhouser said. "We knew we had a lot of guys that could throw, but they've really stepped up."
Funkhouser said Meyers is available to pitch in relief this week and is on track to return to the rotation.
The reign as defending Class 1A state champions hasn't been the easiest for the Gibault Hawks. Now 15-9 after losing three of their last five games, the Hawks are also dealing with the loss of starting catcher Ryley Wallin for the season because of a knee injury.
Wallin, who homered in the state title game last June, was already dealing with an elbow injury that had coach Andy Skaer using him as a designated hitter.
Just when Wallin seemed ready to return, he injured his knee while swinging the bat.
"Throughout the year we've had some injuries, more so than what we've had in a typical year," said Skaer, whose team's pitching depth was tested earlier when Webster University recruit Austin Beccue and Auggie Ward both dealt with arm troubles.
"They're back healthy now and hopefully we can get on a roll," Skaer said.
Gibault may have found a spark Monday as senior ace left-hander and Austin Peay Division I recruit Zach Neff fired a two-hitter with nine strikeouts in a 7-1 road win over Alton. Neff also drove in two runs.
Gibault has also used four catchers, including Beccue, Alec Skaer and sophomore Drew Dugan. After playing senior Lindenwood-St. Charles recruit and reigning News-Democrat Player of the Year Wes Degener in the outfield for a time, Degener is back at shortstop.
"It's taken us longer than normal to figure out who we need where," said Skaer, who has moved sophomore Jordan McFarland to left field. "It's never easy, especially when we were coming into the year knowing we had some injury issues. We do see everybody's best effort, that's for sure."
Seven of Gibault's nine losses have come against Class 3A or 4A teams, although the Hawks are moving up from 1A to 2A this season for the playoffs. Gibault had lost three of its last four games heading into Monday's game at Alton, allowing 32 runs in those four contests.
Neff, the team's top pitcher a year ago, has also battled through some adversity.
He allowed 11 runs (nine earned) and 11 hits in an 11-6 loss to Freeburg on April 26. He is 6-3 with a 2.60 ERA and ranks among the area leaders with 66 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.
"He's had some rough starts, but he's had some really good games as well," Skaer said, noting Neff's dominant start Monday against Class 4A Alton.
Ward (3-2, 1.73 ERA) and Dylan McCoy (2-0, 5.42 ERA) have the next highest innings totals among the pitchers and freshman Tyler Brinkmann (2-0, 2.40) has seen duty as a starter and reliever.
Degener (.484, five triples, one homer, 16 RBIs), McFarland (.438, five homers, 25 RBIs) and Ward (.379, six doubles, two homers, 22 RBIs) have been the most consistent offensive threats along with Chander Purcell (.328, seven doubles, 13 RBIs) and Neff (.325, two homers, 14 RBIs).