The Jefferson City baseball team won 22 games last season, but the Jays fell just short of their goal, losing 5-0 to Rock Bridge in the Class 5 District 9 championship.
"Every year, our goal is always to win the district championship," Jays coach Brian Ash said. "Nothing's going to change this year."
The goal may be the same, but many of the faces have changed. Seven players - all starters - from the 2014 Jays graduated, including Missouri State signees Jackson Walker and Jake Walker, three-year starters Riley Klostermann and Alex Johnson, and Hayden Strobel, who Ash called the team's top hitter.
"Those aren't guys you just replace real easily," Ash said. "... You go down the list, and not only do they provide most of the offense or quite frankly 90 percent of the offense, but they also provide 90 percent of the defense as well. The good thing I like about this team is we have the majority of our pitchers back, and we do have a lot of guys, senior, junior, sophomores, who are very talented and they just lack that experience right now."
The Jays begin earning some experience in their season opener at 11 a.m. today against Fatima at Vivion Field.
The Comets, who joined Jefferson City and Blair Oaks in last Saturday's Jamboree, finished third in Class 3 last season.
"People always say, "I don't know what benefit it really affords us playing smaller schools,' but Fatima and Blair Oaks, teams like that around the area, they're always talented," Ash said. "So for a first game out, it's a good game to get. We'll obviously have to play very well to beat them."
The Jays might as well get used to tough opponents. Ash called this year's schedule "the toughest schedule that any Jay baseball program has ever played."
"Just right out of the chute, there are seven preseason ranked teams in the top 10 that we play," he said. "There's not a game that you can really just say, "Well, if we just show up we can win.' If you just show up, you're going to get beat. With every team on our schedule, you're going to get beat if you don't come ready to compete and execute."
After today's game, the Jays head to the Willard Tournament.
"We've got four games down there, which will be a really good test just to kind of see really where we're at - not only pitching and hitting, but just trying to figure out a consistent lineup and maybe who's going to be playing where on the infield and the outfield," Ash said. "Right now, we're going to shuffle kids in and out these first couple weeks just to kind of give everybody an opportunity."
Senior Adam Grunden is the lone returning position player from last year's team. Grunden, Bret Jaegers and Blaine Meyer bring experience to the mound. All-state pitcher Travis Hennessy is currently nursing a shoulder injury and Ash hopes he will return by the Capital City Invitational set for April 10-11. Jacob Weirich, a sophomore who logged varsity innings as a freshman, will be the Jays' opening-day starter.
"We've got a plethora of pitching," Ash said. "It's just, can they get varsity hitters out consistently? Because they haven't done it yet. This is all new."
Ash wants his inexperienced squad to make its own mark rather than concern itself with the departed players.
"Obviously, the last two years we had back-to-back 20-win seasons, which, in high school, that's always a goal that you want to reach because you know you're playing at a high level and you're playing well," Ash said. "But they need to have their own identity. We're not worried about what last year's seniors did and the year before, because they can actually be better.
"And so that's kind of our goal. We want to them to establish their own identity and lead this team to uncharted territory from the last seven years, and hopefully that's a district title."