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JOHNSONBURG â€“ Despite fielding a small team for the 2012 baseball season, the Johnsonburg Rams have made some noise early with solid pitching and a quick infield, and look to contend in the competitive District 9 scene.
"We knew our numbers were low but the players in the bottom of the lineup are starting to show some life at the plate and they've improved defensively," Johnsonburg head baseball coach Jeff Peterson said. "That's mixing well with the rest of the team. We definitely had a positive outlook at the beginning of the season and we knew we had real good pitching coming back.
"We have to take it one game at a time but we feel really good about it right now but we have a long game. We have a few wins here and there but they don't mean much until the big games come near the end of the season."
Starting out 4-0 on the season, coach Peterson said the team's biggest issue thus far is inexperience with the lower end of the batting lineup.
"That's been our downfall probably for the past five or six years, the bottom three of the lineup kind of struggles," coach Peterson said. "We've probably never had a solid nine batting lineup unlike our Legion team where you fill in with a few more kids for a solid nine.
"With high school, most of the time from year to year you play the kids that were actually your subs from the year before-- they actually get their turn and move in, and it's a progression as they have to get their experience fast. We dump them into the outfield or somewhere and they go eight or nine in the lineup, and you expect things from them."
However, as the season progresses, the veteran coach said he expects better output.
"The season is young and we have some good players near the bottom of the lineup in Devon Zilcoski and Kyle Sheldon, he played some Legion ball although unfortunately he didn't get a lot of playing time but he was around it enough to know what to do," coach Peterson said. "[Sheldon] is looking real good for us now, especially in the outfield, and [Zilcoski] is coming along in the outfield doing a nice job, and he's swinging the bat for us really well.
"Dylan DeLong and Luke Shreffler are my guys jumping in at No. 9, and they're getting there. They're pretty good defensively and they're working on their hitting. They stick in there and try to put the ball in play, and something good will come out of that."
One of the team's strongholds is their infield which, while mostly comprised of sophomores and juniors, has a veteran feel to it.
"We're really strong in the infield as they're young but they've been around for a while," coach Peterson said. "In the past, I used to be a bit nervous about our infield but now we're just so quick with Frank Kocjancic at second and Cole Peterson and Mitchell Holmberg rotating at shortstop, it's a great combination and we have Taylor Feronti at first base. [Feronti] has a ways to go with being out for a few games but he's looking good."
With a strong infield, coach Peterson said his pitching corps can then rely on groundball outs throughout the game.
"We've been talking about getting the groundouts and we have signs for that, throwing the pitches," coach Peterson said. "It's a real good thing where we can locate our pitches and know where to throw the ball. There is a lot of opportunity there."
When remembering the last time his pitching rotation was this solid, coach Peterson recalled names synonymous with Johnsonburg baseball: Calvin Grumley, Seth Peterson, and Seth Streich.
"They were a bit more overpowering than what we have now but that's the last time we had pitching as good as it is now," coach Peterson said. "These kids are still sophomores and juniors that we're throwing right now so I think they're looking really good. We want the strike-throwers and I'll take that any day of the week-- I hate inconsistency and I hate walks.
"I'd rather have a team put the ball in play, especially with our defense. I want the strikeouts or I want the team to hit it, I don't want anything free. I like that about our pitching."
And despite a small and young team, coach Peterson is still shooting for the stars this spring.
"You're always shooting for a winning season so we start out with that, then we look to finish in the top two in the district for the seed," coach Peterson said. "You want be No. 1 or No. 2, we're happy with either one no matter what, and then we go from there. We're just trying to stay on the upper end of a winning record throughout the season and then end up with a decent seed and see what happens."
As far as opposition in District 9, coach Peterson said it depends on who's on the hill.
"Ridgway has Josh Mitchell and we know him, he can throw pretty good. With [Elk County Catholic], you can't count them out, they still have Schlimm throwing for them, they have Herzing, they're definitely a team that is in the picture," coach Peterson said. "I haven't heard much from Coudersport but I know they always have something so I'd never count them out. I haven't heard about a lot of teams yet but we're 3-strong and 4- or 5-deep with pitching so that's a strong point for us. I feel good about our shot with anybody."
So good, in fact, that coach Peterson was able to put a veteran outfielder in a new position with no ill effects.
"Cameron [Grumley] is a real team player because he came in from the outfield after being an All-Star outfielder to catch for us," coach Peterson said. "You have to put one of your best athletes behind the plate and [Grumley] is definitely one of our best athletes. He stepped up and took that role, and I promised him his outfielder spot in Legion.
"Cameron [Grumley] is doing it for the team and he's always been the type of player who will do what you need him to do, and I know he likes the outfield more but he's doing this for the team. You're going to lose if you don't have a catcher, there is no doubt about it. I've been in that situation and it is just so frustrating, you just can't stop anything. He stepped up for us and I give him a pat on the back for bailing us out with no issues, no questions, no nothing."