The 2004 Newell-Fonda High baseball team should be a factor in the Northwest Conference race, if not one of the favorites.
"We'll be experienced at most positions, our team speed will be better than average and we should have a strong pitching staff," Newell-Fonda baseball coach Del Rieman said recently.
Last year, the Mustangs finished 16-13 overall and 11-5 in conference play.
"We need to improve our pitching and defense from last year," added Rieman. "But we have kids coming back capable of doing that."
Returning to bolster Newell-Fonda's hopes is pitcher/shortstop Matt Stauter. A standout quarterback in football last fall and an all-state basketball player, Stauter was a second-team all-Northwest Conference pick in 2003. He hit .390 last season and was 5-5 on the mound.
Also returning is senior first baseman Austin Wells, a first-team all-conference pick pick last season and a second all-district team selection.
In 2003, Wells hit .404, but has been on the bench early this season as a result of knee surgery after the basketball season.
Also returning as an offensive and defensive force is senior centerfielder Alan Baskerville. He hit .370 last summer and was named second-team All-Northwest Conference.
Meanwhile, senior second baseman/outfielder Beau Artist had a leg injury last summer and wasn't able to play baseball. He's healthy now and should be a strong addition. As a sophomore two years ago, Artist was a first team All-Northwest Conference pick.
Other returning starters include junior outfielder Joseph Noethe, junior infielder Jared Neppl, senior outfielder/pitcher Jake Schnell and pitcher/first baseman Tim Seagren.
Noethe hit .372 last year as a sophomore, while Neppl hit .327. As a junior last season, Schnell finished with a .403 batting average while Seagren was 3-5 on the mound.
According to Rieman, top prospect to fill positions vacated by last year's starters are junior catcher Joe Miller, senior outfielder Scott Utech, junior infielder/pitcher Derek Ripke and infielder/pitcher Brent Wells, who started some games last season.
Rieman likes the way his team is shaping up early in the season.
"We have more experience back at every position," he said. "And our pitching looks to be better than it was last year. We have a good group of hitters back from last year and when we get everyone healthy, we should have a good-hitting ballclub."
Keys for the Mustangs this season, Rieman said, are staying healthy and getting strong efforts night in and night out from the third and fourth pitchers in the rotation.
"And we must be able to score against good pitching," he said. "Our top pitchers have to stay healthy and our players must understand their roles on the team."
Rieman added that top Northwest Conference contenders include Sioux Central, Alta and Schaller-Crestland.
"Each of those teams have most of their starters back," Rieman said. "St. Mary's is always tough and Sac City has some good athletes. We hope to be a factor in the conference race."