ROCKTON - The Hononegah baseball team figure to be strong right where it counts: Up the middle.
The Indians have sophomore Noah Goddard back behind the dish. They have a talented pitching staff led by pro prospect Tyler Statler. And they have center fielder Braden Sayles, and shortstop Gabe Roessler, both fresh off terrific freshmen seasons like Goddard.
That recipe for success has the Indians optimistic that the 2019 NIC-10 crown is theirs for the taking.
Last season, Hononegah finished second to an East team that graduated five first-team All-NIC 10 players. The Indians, who went 16-2 in conference play, then finished with a 22-10 record when they were upset by a sub-.500 DeKalb team in the IHSA Class 4A regional.
Gone is Aren Gustafson, the ace of last year's staff. But Statler, a Southeast Missouri commit who has excelled in showcases this winter, appears more than capable to pick up the slack.
Statler was throwing in the neighborhood of 95, and has had scouts from the Cubs and Cardinals come to Rockton to see him throw this spring. Statler's season was cut short when he was hit by a line drive in the face last year, but his recovery is complete, and he's eager to prove his 0.92 ERA last season was no fluke.
Joining Statler in the starting rotation will be junior Payton Mather, who won five games and carried a solid 2.74 ERA. The other starting spot is still up for debate, but senior Will Hissong is certainly a contender after compiling a 2.59 ERA last year.
"I think we have the ability to be every bit as good, if not better, than last year's staff," Simpson said. "For Statler, the difference in adding four or five miles per hour when you were throwing 88, that's a big difference. If he stays healthy, every fifth day we have a great chance of winning. Mather growin up a year, he's gotten a lot strong in the offseason. I expect some good things out of him. With Will, he threw some good innings for us last year. He wrestled this winter, and really got stronger. I don't remember us ever having a team that is as physically strong as this one will be. We are hoping to not only be really good on the mound, but also have a little more punch at the plate as well."
It's not often that three underclassmen are counted upon heavily to lead a team expected to compete for a conference crown. But then, these aren't your ordinary underclassmen.
"Sayles has put on 25 to 30 pounds in the last year," Simpson said> "Roessler has actually grown a little bit and filled out as well. Goddard has always been a strong kid, but he's gotten stronger, too. These guys have figured out at a young age how important it is to be in the weight room. I expect big things out of all three of them this year."
The Indians should be able to knock the ball around the yard a fair amount as well.
"When you look at our lineup at the end of last year, we had three freshmen in the top three spots," Simpson said. "And without Statler, we had Mather in the fourth spot. If you put Statler in the mix with those four, there's five really good hitters right off the bat. I think Will can add some punch from the left side. And there is still competition for a spot in the outfield and a couple in the infield. We still have question marks, but we have kids competing for those spots. Our practices have been so focused so far, and they've been great."
While the E-Rabs should be down, there will be plenty of contenders to take their spot atop the NIC-10.
"You have to look at Harlem, Boylan, Freeport and Belvidere North as being contenders," Simpson said. "We like to think we have a good shot at finishing at the top, but we've got to stay healthy. We saw last year that an injury to a guy like Statler can really change your fortunes in a hurry, so we're crossing our fingers that we can stay healthy."