Prior to the start of the 2013 season, Warren baseball coach Rick Eaton didn't have to spend much time thinking about how to utilize the returning starters from 2012's District 10 Class AAA championship winning team.
After all, he didn't have any. Last year's D-10 winning team, coached by Jeff Passaro, graduated all nine starters.
With a new coach and nine new starters, Warren was staring the dreaded "rebuilding" year directly in the face. Instead, the team reloaded, compiling a 13-5 record, winning eight straight games at one stretch and capturing a share of the Region 7 baseball crown.
Times Observer file photo
Warren junior Collin Fantaskey
Now, the Dragons hope to take the next step in a season full of growth when they challenge the General McLane Lancers in the D-10 Class AAA Quarterfinals, at 4 p.m., Tuesday, at Slippery Rock University's Jack Critchfield Park.
"We played a very tough schedule this season and have grown leaps and bounds both defensively and on the mound," said Eaton. "We still give some at-bats away, but we're getting better at that. I think if we come out tomorrow and play the strong, consistent ball that we've been playing lately, we give ourselves a great chance to win."
The Dragons lost three of their first five outings this season, but the defeats may have been some of the most important contests of the year. Instead of playing its non-region games against "cupcakes," Warren instead played against quality opposition. Eaton believes the early season schedule helped speed up his team's learning curve.
"Those games showed us what we needed to do in order to win games," said Eaton. "If you see the best and you play with the best, you're not overwhelmed when another strong team comes up on the schedule."
The Dragons have offensive and defensive weapons up and down the lineup. Perhaps no duo is better at setting the table for the Dragons than junior Collin Fantaskey and sophomore Tanner Stanz.
Stanz led the team in hitting for the recently completed regular season with a .421 batting average (24-or-57). Fantaskey was close behind, finishing 26-of-64 from his leadoff spot for a final average of .406. Stanz and Fantaskey are also one-two in RBI for the Dragons with 18 and 12 runs batted in respectively.
The rest of the lineup isn't too bad itself with speed and power littered throughout the Warren roster. Austin Schwanke batted .375 this season, had one of the team's four homers and is always a threat on the bases.
Ed Ord batted .333 with 10 RBI, Carter Cerra batted .283 with nine RBI, catcher Todd Fasenmyer hit .280 and drove in six runs, third baseman Matt Hultquist finished at .278 with seven RBI and Jason Stanton drove in nine runs while batting .277.
Several players on Warren's roster are capable of toeing the slab, but it is likely one of three arms will do most of the starting in the postseason. The trio of Stanz, Fantaskey and Cerra combined for 12 of Warren's 13 wins this season. Tanner Teconchuk had the other.
Stanz had a team-high five wins with just one loss, Fantaskey was 4-2 and Cerra was 3-1. Individual ERA's were not available.
The amount of capable arms on the roster has made deciding Tuesday's starter a difficult task for Eaton.
"I've got a pretty good idea where I'm leaning, but I'm going to let the final decision go for right now," said Eaton.
The Lancers recently completed their regular season with a record of 11-9. That mark includes a pair of losses to region rival Warren - a 13-8 setback on April 13 and a 4-0 shutout loss on May 2.
Four McLane hitters were able to record hits in at least one-third of their at-bats this season. Leading that list is talented centerfielder Evan Dillen who has had little trouble getting on base in 2013. Dillen is easily the team's leading offensive weapon getting a hit in 24 of 42 at-bats for an average of .571.
Catcher and outfielder Kevin Correll finished the year with a .434 average, pitcher and outfielder Chris Laird hit .393 and utility player Zach Fox added a .333 batting average. Pitcher and infielder Tyler Hendricks led the team with 18 RBI - eighth best in all of District 10.
While it is unknown exactly who will pitch for the Lancers on Tuesday, it will likely be Laird or Hendricks. Hendricks had a team-low ERA of 2.12 despite compiling just a 1-4 record. Laird took both losses against Warren this year, but was 4-2 overall with a 2.40 ERA in 2013.
While the Dragons have had their way with the Lancers twice already this season, Eaton knows McLane is a dangerous team and that a good team is very difficult to defeat three times in one season.
"They are a pesky team," said Eaton. "They put the ball in play, they hustle and they make you make plays. We need to come out and put some runs on the board. If we do that, I think we'll be alright."
In the April 13 meeting between the clubs, Warren scored five times in the first inning and never looked back. While it was only a five-run final deficit, McLane closed the gap by scoring four runs in its last at-bat. On May 2, Stanz again beat Laird with perhaps his best pitching performance of the campaign. Stanz twirled a three-hit shutout and struck out 10 batters in the Dragons' win.
The winner of Tuesday's outing will play the winner of Cathedral Prep and Corry in?Friday's semifinal round.