Chagrin Falls has some rebuilding to do after the graduation of six key seniors from the team that finished 19-12 overall and won a Division II district championship.
The Tigers do return five players and a pair of pitchers with significant varsity playing time, and they also dropped to Division III for the first time since 2011.
“Last year, I said that it was the toughest team in a while to project how the season would go–until this season,” said Chagrin Falls head coach Michael Sweeney, who is 383-206 in his 23rd year at the helm. “We have a lot of unknowns this season. We have a lot of players who have no varsity experience at all who will play key roles. I think we will eventually figure things out, but we may have some tough games early in the season. The trip to Myrtle Beach will certainly help us as we will play six games on our trip. This will help our guys gain valuable experience.”
Chagrin Falls won the Chagrin Valley Conference Chagrin Division title with a 10-2 record. The Tigers have won the division title every year since 2017, but that streak could be in jeopardy this spring with an inexperienced roster.
“We have a winning tradition here at Chagrin, so that helps,” Sweeney said. “We have players who want to work and get better. We have a great attitude. However, we have to put it all together on the field in a game and that won’t always be easy. Our expectations are always high, but there are a lot more challenges than ever before.”
One of the most pressing issues is the team’s overall lack of depth and adapting to the defensive alignments that will be used based on which of the team’s pitchers is on the mound.
“We can’t afford any injuries,” Sweeney said. “I am not sure how to avoid injuries. I do think the more we practice and the more we play, the more comfortable we will get with all of the defensive changes. Getting a chance to practice and scrimmage next week in Myrtle Beach will be huge for this team. We need as much practice and game experience outside on a field as we can get. I know our guys will put the time in to get better at each position they play.”
Chagrin Falls returns four starters including seniors Donny Hardy, Gavin Stevens, and Drew Mergenhagen, and junior Sven Nielsen.
Hardy, one of three tri-captains, earned first-team All-CVC honors for the second straight season last spring after batting .330 as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter. He also recorded 20 stolen bases.
He’ll play center field and pitch.
“He is a tremendous defensive center fielder and has power and speed,” Sweeney said. “Donny is a great athlete and a five-tool player. He will probably bat third for us and I look for him to have a monster year. Donny also may help us as a reliever as well. He is still keeping his options open to play baseball in college.”
Stevens, the second of three tri-captains, was an honorable mention All-CVC performer last spring at shortstop. The Mount Union commitment batted .269 with 14 runs batted in and he also dominated in the closer’s role. He finished the year with a 0.00 earned run average with nine strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings of work.
“Gavin plays an outstanding shortstop and has improved a lot since last season in all areas of his game,” Sweeney said. “Gavin is on pace to have an outstanding season with all the work he has put in.”
Mergenhagen, the third of the tri-captains, returns at second base and he will chew up some innings for the Tigers on the mound.
Last spring, Mergenhagen batted .273.
“He really improved over the last half of the year and I expect him to come out strong,” Sweeney said. “Drew should also help us on the mound this season.”
Nielsen plays first base and pitches, but he can help the Tigers as a utility player.
“Sven had an outstanding defensive season for us last year,” Sweeney said. “He was our first baseman much of the time and had a .973 fielding percentage. Sven should also help us on the mound this season.”
Rounding out the projected starting lineup are juniors Will Graham, Charlie Reeder, Oliver Tepper, Aiden Cabic, and Drew Blair, sophomore Finn Johnson, and freshman Jack Watson.
Graham will pitch and play in the outfield while Reeder will play third but can also help out at second and he will throw some innings off the mound.
“Will showed signs of brilliance last season, but just couldn’t find his rhythm with the other guys on staff dominating the innings. This season, Will looks tremendous so far both on the mound and at the plate. He should be a front-line rotation guy and a middle-of-the-lineup hitter,” Sweeney said. “Charlie played some games for us last season at the varsity level and then an injury forced him to miss the rest of the season. I look for Charlie to have a great season for us both on the mound and at the plate.”
Tepper will play right field and pitch while Cabic will DH and play first and Blair will line up in left field and pitch.
“Oliver could be a player who moves around on defense a lot to help us out. We will need his bat in the lineup as I think he can be a very good hitter,” Sweeney said. “Drew is a smart player who will be a solid player for us this season in the outfield. I think Drew will improve throughout the season once he gains confidence and gets varsity experience. Aiden has the potential to give us some power in the batting lineup. He has the potential to be a dangerous threat once he gains varsity experience.”
Johnson and Finn will split time behind the dish.
“Finn will be one of our catchers this year depending on who is on the mound. Finn has worked hard in the offseason to give him a chance to get meaningful time behind the plate. He also will give some depth on the mound and in the outfield,” Sweeney said. “Jack will be a big part of our team and has a lot of potential. He will catch depending on who is on the mound and will also play infield on the left side depending on who is on the mound. Jack is going to be a very good player for us.”
Henry Cimperman, Brandt Stevens, and Mason Hart will provide the Tigers with depth.
Graham, Stevens, Mergenhagen, Reeder, and Watson will start most of the games for the Tigers on the hill with Hardy, Nielsen, Johnson, Blair, and Tepper coming out of the bullpen.
“This will be an interesting year,” Sweeney said. “We have some varsity experience coming back, but not a lot. We have players who will play important roles for us this year who do not have any varsity experience at all. I think we can find a way to compete, but we have no room for any injuries. We will definitely improve as the year goes on. It may take us a while to figure out what our best lineup is and who the best pitchers are, but I think we can make it work. Our inexperienced players have to step up in order for us to be successful and I think that can happen.”