Indians' coach Ted Kerner has a simple philosophy to the way his team approaches each and every game. Even against the bigger opponents on Neoga's schedule, his team doesn't shy away from anyone.
"We don't care who we are playing," he said. "We like to play every day. I think playing in those tough games gets your kids mentally ready for adversity."
The Indians were involved in a number of tussles against state powers last year, taking on both Class 1A state final qualifiers during the regular season.
"We played Tuscola and lost in twelve innings last year," Kerner said, "and we played St. Anthony. I think it prepares us. I want to be playing to our best capabilities when the playoffs start."
Neoga finished last spring at 19-14 and lost to Stew-Stras in the regional final. In order for the Indians to duplicate, and hopefully improve upon, last season's results, Kerner will turn toward a pitching staff that is heavy on experience.
It all starts with junior Tyler Romack, who accumulated an 8-2 record in 2012. This fall, Romack led the Indians to an 8-10-1 resume, where they lost four games by a single run. In spite of the record, Romack owned an impressive 1.35 ERA.
"He's the real deal," Kerner said. "Tyler is definitely our number one pitcher."
Michael Baker and Riley Walk, a pair of capable seniors, will help Kerner fill out the starting rotation while also assuming big roles in the outfield. Baker, a rangy defender who is accustomed to right field, will slide over to center after junior Jared Cole suffered another devastating knee injury.
Walk will assume duties in left field, and provide yet another arm for Kerner to lean on. Both Baker and Walk are seasoned veterans on the varsity level, and should provide a solid level of experience either in the field or on the mound.
"Walk's been a four-year starter," Kerner said. "He started part of the way through his freshman year. (Michael) is another four-year starter."
While the three main pitchers have seen plenty of quality opponents, Neoga may turn toward a freshman to fill the last void in Kerner's four-man rotation. Guy Walk pitched 20 and two-thirds innings this fall, and delivered a strong case for quality time this spring with a 2.71 ERA.
"He came in and won a game or two for us," Kerner said. "He really showed well for himself. He's going to get a shot."
Kerner lost his top reliever from last season, but he knows his roster is full with capable replacements.
"I have a 25-man roster," he said. "Eighteen of them can pitch. I'm not afraid to put any of those guys in the game."
Juniors Jon Atwell and Devin Olmstead have pitched some relief innings for the Indians in the past, and will again be counted on this season.
Kenton Albin is another senior that will be called upon in multiple roles for Kerner's squad. Albin will play plenty at third, but will also make some appearances as a DH and assist in the outfield when Baker is on the mound. Classmate Logan Rankin will see time in the outfield as well.
Helping the Indians' defense is an offense that can generate its fair share of runs, and can do so in a hurry. Riley Walk will hit in the three-hole for Neoga, and he showed plenty of firepower in the fall.
"He had six home runs and 22 RBIs in 19 games," Kerner said. "So he's got a solid stick."
Hitting cleanup will be Baker, who may not have the raw power of a typical number four, but Kerner said there's nobody he'd rather have in the spot.
"He doesn't strike out," Kerner said. "He hits for a good average and he gets on base. When guys are on he's a guy I like to have in the batter's box because he can drive runs in."
Romack and junior catcher Jake Baker will give the Indians two more big bats to capitalize on at the plate, as both have shown the capability of taking the ball deep.
"Jake is kind of a damage hitter," Kerner said. "He hits a lot of doubles and will hit a couple home runs, drive some runs in. Tyler is similar to Jake. He may not hit .400, but Tyler had 19 RBIs in 19 games this fall. When he hits it he's got some substance behind it."
Second baseman Tim Yurs will take over as the leadoff hitter, having lost a significant portion of his fall season to a broken thumb.
"He missed some offensive time," Kerner said. "His production was a little down because of that."
Yurs is as solid as they come defensively, as Kerner will need Yurs' defensive capabilities and the power of his hitters to help offset some concerns over the Indians' defense. Neoga's effort in the field left something to be desired in the fall, and Kerner is hoping the group can turn it around to help flip near losses into much-needed wins.
"We lost some close games," he said. "Part of the reason is our defense was a little shaky. We definitely have some work to do defensively. It's not so much fielding the ball, it's once we get it. We can't get it where we want it. It almost seems like there is too much thinking going on."
Kerner is realistic when it comes to the regular season. He knows that it is unlikely the Indians make it through unscathed, but he hopes that the difficult schedule will pay dividends when Neoga looks to take the next step in May and capture a regional title.
"I'd rather have a team that is well prepared for the playoffs with a 19-15 record," he said, "than being unprepared at 29-4."
Neoga opens its season on March 16 when the Indians welcome Central A&M.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org