Hard to believe, but high school baseball season is here.
Because of the mild winter, games will begin as scheduled Thursday. Those games traditionally get postponed because of a melting layer of snow, but temperatures in the 70s will make conditions ideal this week.
"I can't remember when we've been able to get out so much," Millard West coach Frank Ryan said. "It's definitely been different, but I think that's going to have the teams ready for some good baseball from day one."
Season openers start Thursday, and one of the top games will feature Ryan's Wildcats playing at Omaha Westside. Both teams reached the state tournament last year and have high hopes for 2012.
There are several interesting story lines to follow this season, so let's take a closer look:
Year of the Wildcat?
Pitching-rich Millard West once again appears to be a threat to capture that elusive first state baseball championship. The Wildcats came oh-so-close last season, losing to Papillion-La Vista South 3-0 in the Class A final.
The bats being used for safety purposes at the high school level this season are in line with the ones that yielded fewer home runs on the college level last year. Look for more low-scoring games and an added emphasis on pitching and defense.
Thirty-nine and counting
Longtime Papillion-La Vista coach Jim Thomas returns for his 39th season. It just wouldn't be the same without Thomas, who went over the 600-win mark last year.
After playing a junior varsity schedule last season, Plattsmouth officially joins Class B as a varsity member. Other tweaks this season include Lincoln Lutheran being added to the Wahoo/Raymond Central co-op and Bancroft-Rosalie and West Point-Beemer joining the Pender co-op.
Can Papio South repeat?
The Titans must replace some key players from last year, including All-Nebraska selections Tyler Lane and Justin Paul and versatile reliever Mark Lukowski. Coach Bill Lynam always gets the most out of his team, so expect Papio South to be there again come state tournament time.
How about Gretna?
The Dragons were most impressive in winning Class B for the first time last season, finishing 24-4 while rolling through the state tournament undefeated. Nine seniors graduated from that squad, so we'll see if Gretna has the firepower to hold off hungry teams such as Omaha Skutt.
Skutt finished as the Class B runner-up in 2008 and 2010 but saw its tourney hopes hampered last season by a first-round loss to Beatrice. The SkyHawks were eventually knocked out by state runner-up Elkhorn, but the return of several key players — including Creighton pitching recruit Matt Warren — makes this team dangerous.
Groth's broken pinkie
Another Bluejays pitching recruit, South Sioux City's Austin Groth, broke the pinkie on his throwing hand late in the basketball season. His ability to come back and perform at a high level will be a major key for the Class B Cardinals.
Here comes Prep
Omaha Creighton Prep returns seven senior starters from the team that went 25-7 last year, though a 1-2 performance at state was a downer. Ace Kyle Kubat has graduated, but look for the Junior Jays to be flying high once again for head coach Pat Mooney.
Millard North must carry on without a player named Gillaspie following the graduation of All-Nebraska selection Casey, who followed his All-Nebraska brother Conor. The return of five starters and the addition of several promising newcomers should have coach Dave Cork feeling good about this season.
Best team in Lincoln?
That's hard to say, because both Southeast and Southwest are coming off state tournament appearances. Both teams suffered major graduation losses, so we'll take a wait-and-see attitude for now.
Cougars on the prowl
Omaha Gross captured Class B in 2009 and 2010 but was unable to make it back to state last year. Look for longtime coach Mike Filipowicz to use that as motivation for this year's squad.
Watch this kid
Jakson Reetz of Norris had an eventful freshman season for the Titans. He led the team in hits (38), average (.514), home runs (6), RBIs (27), runs (32), stolen bases (15) and saves (2).
State tourney moving
While the new schedule won't kick in until 2013, the Class A and B state tournaments will alternate between Haymarket Park in Lincoln and Werner Park in Papillion. With so many Omaha-area teams in both tournaments, attendance should get a nice boost, and the friendly people at Werner should make everyone feel right at home.
That's enough for now. The only thing left is to hear the umpires say two of the most beautiful words in the English language:
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