ST. MARYS -The American Legion baseball team from St. Marys Post 79 is about to find out if success breeds success.
As Post 79 embarks on the 2014 season, 11 of its 16 members played for the St. Marys High School program which advanced to the Class A state semifinals and finished the year with a 29-3 record.
Post 79 opens with a doubleheader Sunday at St. Clairsville Post 159 then makes its home debut on Tuesday for Community Day at Dave Wilson Field. First pitch for the nine-inning affair is 6:30 p.m.
"This year we have more players from St. Marys than we usually do," Post 79 head coach Wirt Cook said. "The first couple of years of legion ball, St. Marys High School was a good team but not great. But the last couple of years, their success has been about knowing how to win games. They are used to winning games and their winning attitude has carried over. They get mad when they don't win."
With a solid pitching staff of five bona fide starters combined with a potent offense, Post 79 could surpass last year's win total when it finished 26-19.
"Last year, we had a lot of good top-end players," Cook said. "This year, the difference between our 16 players is not that far away. They've all contributed for teams they played for."
The rotation starts with Robbie Harper at the top followed by Tyler Davis, Michael Stout, Jarrod Lough and Luke Cooper. The first four played a vital role for St. Marys High School, while Cooper hails from Paden City. Harper, who led off in the batting order for the Blue Devils, received the start in the state semifinal game against Man.
"Robbie is our No. 1 pitcher for good reason," Cook said. "Since his four-hit shutout against Wheeling toward the end of last year's legion season, he has done a lot of growing up. He's been on his game ever since."
Davis boasts a lethal four-seam fastball, while Stout gives Post 79 defensive stability when positioned in any of the three outfield spots. Lough provides stability in left field and makes the offense go from the No. 3 hole, while Cooper displays a big, strong physique which will come in handy in the corner outfield positions.
Offensively, Post 79 will rely on Ritchie County's Dylan Frye to spark the lineup from the leadoff spot. Signed to play at Coastal Carolina, Frye hit a solo homer to lead off a North-South game recently.
"Dylan will play center field as long as he is standing," Cook said. "He had a nice summer for us last year and played well his senior year for Ritchie County. He is really driving the ball. He hits for a lot of power, just like Mitch Davis did for us."
Post 79 welcomes a total of three players from Paden City, including freshman Hayden Hizer and junior Zach Heasley. Heasley is primarily a first baseman and corner outfielder. His approach at the plate resembles teammate Matt Houser. Hizer is versatile and will serve a utility role.
"Hayden is very smooth in the field for as young as he is," Cook said. "At the plate, he has quick hands."
Rounding out the players not associated with this year's Blue Devils program is Aaron Tice, who is actually a St. Marys graduate attending Marietta College. He will see action at both second base and third base.
"This is Aaron's fifth year - we came in together and we're going out together," Cook said.
Handling the pitching staff will be second-team all-stater Johnny Riggs, who led the Blue Devils in home runs and runs-batted-in. His backup is St. Marys freshman Braden Barnhart.
Also scheduled to start are Michael Fox at shortstop, Houser at first base and Chad Hofstetter at third base.
"Fox reminds me of Tony Brunicardi when he was younger - he is so athletic," Cook said. "Houser, along with Jarrod and Johnny, can hit the ball for a long way. Hoftstetter is a good asset because of his left-handed bat. He has a nice, short compact swing."
St. Marys sophomore Ty Lemley is someone who can fill in at all three outfield positions and contribute in relief.
"My pitching staff is not as deep as last year," Cook said. "Last year, I had nine guys I could trust and give the ball to. This year, I have five good pitchers."
This year marks Cook's final in his current role since he took over five years ago. He has a son (Max) who will be playing tee-ball next season.
"It's not going to be easy to give it up," Cook said. "When I first arrived, I told all the kids that even though I'm not from St. Marys I am committed to this program. Not in just in St. Marys, but I wanted to make baseball in this area better.
"Whether it might be in the state tournament or somewhere farther, I will enjoy it because I've had a blast."
Helping make it possible for Cook is Post 79 general manager Steve Tice, who resurrected the team back in 2010. The coaching staff will feature three former players now serving as Cook's assistants - Brunicardi, Davis and Andy Newhart.
Post 79 enters enters its second season in Area 1, along with Wheeling Post 1, Moundsville Post 3 and Weirton Post 10. The Area 1 tournament is scheduled for Weirton on July 23-26.