By Chris Chaney
As the winning tradition on the New Richmond hardwood was reinvigorated this winter, the Lions’ baseball team plans to continue the tradition of their own on the diamond as they embark on a campaign that could become their 16th consecutive winning season.
That mark won’t be achieved simply by buttoning up the red and black this season, head coach Brian Benzinger warns, and despite a co-Southern Buckeye Conference American Division championship and district final appearance a year ago, many new faces will take the field this spring.
“We lost more than a couple of guys, and while we do have some guys back, the guys we lost last year were a really big part of our offense,” Benzinger said. “There was a lot of thunder in our lineup that are now going to college classes, but the guys we have coming back are experienced.
“We have our top two pitchers back from last year, which is a luxury. Some key spots we have back are our shortstop, our centerfielder and our catcher and a pretty strong pitching staff.”
Heading up that pitching staff are Levi Simpson and Chris Lawrence, two All-Stars a year ago.
“I’ve got to start with Simpson, he’s a four-year varsity player, he’s a senior and one of our top-two pitchers last year as well as playing third base,” Benzinger said. “Levi will probably have that same role this year as well as catching. He’s a very versatile player that you can literally put anywhere on the field.
“Chris Lawrence really had a good second half of last year that was pivotal in our tournament run. Having him back is big.”
Simpson went 9-1 last year, pitching 65 full innings and recording a 2.58 earned run average. Lawrence nipped Simpson in the ERA department, carding a 2.33, but only pitched 39 innings and went 4-2.
Off the mound, Benzinger pointed to Josh Heiden, a senior shortstop, Jake Hauke, a senior centerfielder, Joey Hawkins, a senior infielder and Cole Goodnow, a pitcher and infielder to help pick up the production the Lions lost to graduation.
As for the team’s offseason and preseason preparation, New Richmond has a distinct advantage in terms of their facilities. Playing on a synthetic surface has allowed Benzinger and his team to spend more time outdoors and practicing fully than some of their opponents who are more susceptible to poor weather.
“(The weather) hasn’t had much (of an impact),” Benzinger explained. “We do a lot of our pitching inside regardless of the weather to start and a lot of times we’ll go over defensive situations inside regardless of the weather just because it’s easier to hear.
“We do have the turf and I think maybe we are able to get outside on the field earlier than most, which benefits us. I think our threshold to go outside goes down a little bit because we know it’s going to be dry on the turf.”
That extra prep work doesn’t necessarily translate into a walk through the league for New Richmond, Benzinger said. In fact, he doesn’t see any clear-cut favorite in the SBC this year.
“I get a chuckle when I read some articles that say we’re the team to beat,” Benzinger said. “I certainly don’t feel that way and I believe that all six teams are capable of beating up on one another, but that’s no different than probably the last five years in a row.
“We hope and, quite frankly, we expect to compete for the league championship again. When you think about the teams that we will compete against, I think you start with Goshen and Western Brown. Those two teams are always strong and it seems like Goshen’s got about 20 guys back from last year. Amelia will surprise people and you can never count Bethel out.
“There’s no day off in the American Division, that’s for sure.”
That search for another league title will begin on April 2 at Norwood, but first the Lions will get their season underway at their namesake invitational on Saturday, March 29 against Holy Cross and Holmes.