Celt Travis Marks defends third base in a game last season. After a year with only three seniors on the team, the Celts return to the diamond with a more experienced varsity squad. (KEIZERTIMES/File Photo)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

McNary High School’s varsity baseball team is setting its sights high this season. If they could have their way, they’ll settle for nothing less than a Central Valley Conference championship.

“Last year, we had a lot of juniors who are now seniors and we know what to expect and what we want as a goal,” said Celt pitcher Travis Marks. “We have a lot of high expectations from all of our players and we know that we can accomplish whatever we set our minds to.”

McNary ended their 2011 season in a 10-1 loss to Glencoe High School in the first round of the state playoffs, but returns much of its roster to the field as only three seniors graduated from the program last June. The Celts will face Sunset High School in a home opener Tuesday, March 13.

“I want us to come out with fire,” said Garren Robinett, a McNary senior. “We ended the season last year with a loss to a team we could have beat, and we need to start out on the right foot this year.”

Last season, South Salem High School ran away with a CVC title, but fans should expect more parity throughout the league this season, said Larry Keeker, McNary head coach.

“West Salem is the team that most coaches would consider to have the best chances, but the league as a whole is a lot more balanced,” he said.

Many on the Celtic roster have extra motivation to keep the championship out of Titan hands.

“We’ll be bringing our A-game to West Salem. Ever since we were little, it’s been us and them battling,” said Celt Justin Gardner.

“They’re a good group of guys and pretty consistent,” Marks added.

In addition to challenges they’ll face from other opponents, players throughout the league will be adapting to new bats. A regulation change that went into effect before the season began requires the use of change. The new bats look like aluminum bats carried to the plate game after game, but a smaller sweet spot makes big hits less likely.

“If you don’t hit it on the barrel of the bat, the ball is not going to go anywhere,” Robinett said.

Marks said the new bats feel more like traditional wood bats both in the hand on the swing.

“The last ones were more like springboards,” he said.

The new composition of the stick doesn’t change the mechanics of a good swing, Gardner said, but “last summer we hit a lot of home runs and it’s not going to be like that this year.”

Deadened bats also change the game strategy both offensively and defensively.

“Being able to execute on hit-and-run and being able to steal bases is going to be a factor for most teams. Defensively, we’ve got to be able to defend the bunt. We’ll probably squeeze the outfield a little bit further in,” Keeker said.

Offensively, Keeker hopes to put the team’s speed to good use along the baselines.

Defensively, the team returns much of its infield presence and several Celt pitchers return to the mound in Justin Burgess, D.J. Harryman, Marks and Robinett.

“Pitching is where our focus is right now because we want to be able to put any guy out there and feel like they won’t fold,” Gardner said.

Keeker also has his eye on some up-and-comers, “We have some good young prospects in southpaw Connor Suing and Travis Klampe is definitely on the radar screen.”

For the team’s first outing, Keeker will be focusing on what comes off the mound.

“Last year, we gave up too many walks and free bases. We want to be able to throw strikes from the get-go and we’re not going to be pitching around anybody,” he said.

Marks said the test for the team will be in whether it can resurrect the family atmosphere it achieved last season.

“We had great team chemistry. I’ll be hoping that can carry over and seeing if we communicate like I know we can,” he said.