CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Don't look for much to change at the top of Kanawha Valley Class AAA baseball this season.
Nitro and Hurricane, the area's dominant programs since 2005, both come off 27-win seasons and both are expected to flex their muscle and hustle again this year and contend for spots in the state tournament.
"We've still got the same goals as we do every year here,'' said Nitro coach Steve Pritchard, "and that's to try and win 20 games and try to get to the state tournament.''
The Wildcats have now done that six straight years, winning a pair of state titles and coming in second twice. Nitro has won 20 or more games eight straight years, averaging 26.3 wins over that span.
Hurricane, on the other hand, has won 20 or more seven times in eight seasons, averaging 24.3 victories in that stretch.
Nitro suffered a key loss from last year in catcher Korey Dunbar, the state's player of the year, but Dunbar was the squad's only senior.
Returning are a trio of top pitchers in right-handers Ryan McDonough (8-2, 2.43 ERA) and Tyler Barton (6-1) and left-hander Kip Brewer (2.30 ERA). McDonough and Winfield lefty Mason Dillon (9-1, 1.60 ERA) should be two of the area's best AAA pitchers.
The other eight starters for Nitro are all back in first baseman Dylan Slack (.389, 41 RBIs), second baseman Evan Eich, shortstop Solomon Shamblin, third baseman Eric Keller, and Barton, Ethan Clark and Brewer in the outfield. Freshman Matt Jewell takes over as catcher.
"It's the first time I can ever remember starting a freshman at catcher,'' Pritchard said. "We're used to having Korey back there. After three years, you get spoiled. [Jewell] will be a good one, but there's definitely going to be a learning curve.''
Hurricane lost four seniors but, like Nitro, should be strong again on the mound.
Senior Riley Metz (6-2, 2.44 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 43 innings), junior Austin Hensley (6-0, 2.06) and sophomore J.T. Rogoszewski lead the pitching talent.
Among returning position players, infielder Riley Metz (.390) held the top batting average while catcher Tate Brock led the Redskins in homers (three) and runs batted in (29). Another infielder, Hensley, batted .333 and Zach Pate swiped 23 bases.
Hurricane coach Brian Sutphin said the lineup is a bit more settled now than it was a year ago, when the team had to replace eight departed seniors at the outset.
"Last year we didn't have any expectations because we lost so many guys from a team that was pretty daggone good,'' Sutphin said. "Going into last year, no one knew where they were at. Now we return more regulars and I think they're physically a lot stronger than we were last year.
"We're excited, and anytime you return some guys [there are expectations], but at the same time there are no guarantees. Just because you played last year doesn't mean you'll be better the next year. It certainly helps being a year older. We've got a lot of multi-sport athletes who have had success in other sports, and they definitely work hard in the weight room and I think that helps prepare them for baseball season.''
Two other Kanawha Valley teams reached the state tournament last season, Herbert Hoover in AA and Charleston Catholic in Class A. Each could make a return visit, owing to the talent it can field.
The Huskies (27-9 last year) appear to have enough back to make another run at Appalachian Power Park, especially in the batting order.
Senior outfielder Corey Bird, a Marshall recruit, is the top returning hitter in either Kanawha or Putnam county, as he comes off a .483 average that included just one strikeout (looking) in 116 at-bats. He also led the Kanawha Valley with 51 runs scored and 40 stolen bases and also drove in 31 runs.