Which version of the St. Mary's Panthers is going to show up?
Will it be the team that struggled to find focus and lagged to a 3-11 start last season - or will it be the determined team that suddenly clicked and won 12 of its last 16 to salvage a .500 season and make an exciting run in the post-season?
"This is a pretty unique team," Coach Ryan Berg reflects. "When they are completely focused and working as hard as they can work, it is very competitive ball club." They should be even more so this year - graduating only T.J. Miller from a 2007 squad that ended the season with impressive upsets in district play against teams that had easily handled them earlier in the year.
Returning is a cadre of quality pitching - Jon Foell, Alec Kestel and Ryan Drey all have plenty of experience and should form a solid three-man rotation. Justin Cullen, with a Districts win over Alta last summer, provides a fourth option as a starter for tournament play as well as relief pitching.
Berg, in his 13th year, also has some younger arms at his disposal. As they develop, the younger kids may see spot duty to gain experience.
For such an experienced starting unit, the Panthers also have a strong youth movement. Of 28 athletes out, half are 8th and 9th graders.
With numbers always an issue at the smallest of the area high schools, St. Mary's has easily the most players out that it has seen in about a half dozen years.
Foell, who catches when he isn't pitching, is a team leader in the field. Evan Smith also serves as something of a quarterback amongst the fielders from his outfield position, Coach Berg says.
At the plate, Alec Kestel is just as handy with the bat as he has proved to be with a golf club earlier this season. He hit .326 a year ago. Marco Berahona, who broke into the lineup midyear, was clubbing a promising .333, and Michael Ivey was a dependable producer at .291.
This won't be a home-run-hitting team, and will instead rely on getting runners on base early in the innings, playing smart baseball to move them around, and using its ability to spray singles around the field and basepath quickness to manufacture runs.
The Panthers will have to deal with a well-stocked Northwest Conference, however.
"The conference is always competitive, and it seems like there are a lot of schools with most everyone back this year," says Berg. "Alta has a lot of good athletes, and they are probably the favorites. It seems like Sioux Central always has good pitching and is contending. This will be Laurens-Marathon's first year in the conference in baseball, but we've seen their basketball team and we know they have strong people. After that, there are a lot of us who are pretty even, and we will be battling it out to see which team out of that pack is going to move up and be able to compete for the top spots."
The Panthers open their season Tuesday the 20th, hosting Granville-Spalding.