CANTON  It may take a few more weeks for the Northeast Ohio weather to warm up, but the Malone baseball team is hoping that two trips south will jump-start its own warm-up process for the season.

The Pioneers, like many teams from the northern half of the United States, stock the early weeks of their schedule with trips to tournaments in the south in order to get games in while they wait for warmer temperatures to arrive in Ohio. Malone does so with a roster filled with local players, including 10 players from Suburbanite-area schools.

Veteran head coach Tom Crank is confident that a pitching staff that ranked as the best in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference last season will be strong again this spring.

"When it comes to ur strengths, our pitching staff should be strong again. Last year led conference in pitching and we only lost closer and another reliever," Crank said. "With kids we’ve added to our staff and how hard we’ve worked on our defense get better in that area, we should be in good shape."

Among the returning pitchers, two local products should figure prominently in the mix for the Pioneers. Sophomore Christian Specht (Jackson) and senior Chandler Stahl (Manchester) occupy different roles on the pitching staff, but both will factor heavily into its success.

"Christian came in and he was a borderline Division I-level guy that we got. He came in and had a good freshman year and has gotten better," Crank said. "Chandler is working into our closer role. He had Tommy John surgery coming out of high school and is now all the way back."

The rotation could also see a boost from freshman James Kontur (Lake Center Christian), whom Crank described as "a freshman with a lot of talent and a very big competitor with a huge upside in college baseball." Kontur has been battling a back ailment, but Crank is hopeful he’ll be able to contribute this season.

On offense, Malone expects to lean more on its speed and contact hitting after gradating much of its power from last season. The position players also include plenty of local products, with former Jackson standout Nate Cobb patrolling center field after earning G-MAC Freshman of the Year honors last season.

Among the reserves for the outfield is former Springfield star Andrew Hanna, a freshman looking to carve out a role with Malone, and one of three Mottice brothers on the roster, freshman Jacob Mottice. On the infield, sophomore Zach Mottice returns after starting at second base last season, with Lake alumnus Damian Maglione starting at third base.

Elsewhere in the infield, Stone King (Jackson) is competing for playing time at first base and Cade Mottice is working to establish himself on the college level as a freshman. Mottice recorded his first college hit during Malone’s Georgia trip last month, setting the stage for what he hopes will be a productive freshman campaign.

"Hitting wise, we’re a team that has speed and we’re going to do a lot of stealing bases, along with hit and runs," Crank said.

The trip to Georgia for a pair of doubleheaders against Illinois-Springfield, a venture that didn’t turn out well for the Pioneers. The offense couldn’t thaw out its bats, scoring just 11 runs in the four games, while the pitching staff allowed 38 runs over two days.

Against an Illinois-Springfield squad that had already played a few games, Malone was a step behind and Crank knows that the trip to Georgia, along with a nine-day trip to Auburndale, Fla. to begin the month of March, will go a long way toward preparing his team for the core of its schedule.

"In Georgia we ended up playing not as well as we could have," Crank said. "The first time out is always an adjustment, being able to see the ball and make sure where the ball is at in terms of depth perception after being indoors a lot, but it’s pretty quick adjustment. Our guys have been chomping at the bit to get outside after being indoors for about 30 practices before we came south."

While the team bus may have headed south at the beginning of the season, the plan is for the season itself to do anything but. After returning to Ohio for a matchup with Division I rival Kent State, the Pioneers will launch into G-MAC play on March 16 with the belief that a challenging schedule to begin the year will have them ready to compete for a conference title in the weeks ahead.

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