Independence has made several runs to the regional tournament in Division III but the Blue Devils will play down a division this spring and they hope to find even more success in Division IV.
“That’s huge,” said Independence coach Mark Echstenkamper of the drop to Division IV. “We’ve been kind of waiting for that for a couple of years now. Division III is really tough and very competitive. It’s hard to get even to the sectional finals in Division III. I think we can make some noise in Division IV.”
The Blue Devils enter the new season with five returning starters and a large senior class.
Echstenkamper has liked what he has seen out of the team during the preseason and he expects to see that carry over into the regular season.
“We’ve had a really good five weeks of practice,” he said. “We’ve been working really hard on the team chemistry and setting the culture the way we wanted. We started that last year; about midway through the year the kids really started to buy into it. We just want to continue on from there.”
Four seniors are projected to start for the Blue Devils this season including Andrew Teribery at second base, Kyle Stefanski at shortstop, Owen Ramm in right field and Nick Mroczynski in center. Four more, Zach Billings, Akhil Patel, Sam Spacagna and Tyler Teare are fighting for playing time at their respective positions.
Having so much veteran leadership returning on defense is a big advantage for the Blue Devils this year.
“That helps a lot,” Echstenkamper said. “Last year at this time, I had no idea who was where; I had no clue. Going into this year, knowing defensively where guys are going to be plugged in and really be able to focus on their positions has been a big advantage for me.”
Underclassmen starters include junior Tim Marcinko at third base, sophomore Jamie McMahon at first and junior Jordan Mallernee in left field.
Juniors Michael Valenti and A.J. Rutkowski are competing for the starting spot at catcher and sophomore Kevin Mooney, the returning starter, should be ready for action in mid-April.
McMahon and Stefanski return as Independence’s No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers and Billings, Mallernee, Mroczynski and Brad Wartroba also will see time on the bump.
“We have a lot of arms and a lot of lefties too,” Echstenkamper said. “I feel pretty good about our pitching rotation right now. Defense and pitching, those are going to be our strong points.”
Echstenkamper isn’t quite sure what to expect from his team on offense, although he’ll plan to push runs across the plate any way he can.
“The biggest question mark right now is how well we’re going to hit the ball,” he said. “We’re going to have to manufacture runs playing some small ball until we really get our bats going. I think we’re going to throw the ball pretty well and we’ll be pretty solid defensively, but we’ll see how many runs we can get across the plate.”