Today is the official opening day for another Western Big 6 Conference baseball season and that means it istime to consider the "Big 6'' questions heading into another Big 6 season.|
Who's the favorite? Flip a coin between Moline and Alleman. Alleman is coming off a Class 2A runner-up finish, but a 5-5 Big 6 run. Moline is coming off a 7-2 Big 6 season. Both teams are very similar, though, being built around strong pitching and defense and patience at the plate. A lot of questions will be answered in today's doubleheader between the two at Alleman's Gerard Yard.
Who are the top returning position players? The conference is missing some of last season's top firepower as Alleman's Ryan O'Keeffe graduated and Rock Island's Jake Scudder is out with knee problems. But there is still plenty of offense to go around.
Alleman has a trio of Dispatch/Argus All-Metro players returning. Shortstop and leadoff hitter Connor Whan, who led the team in runs a season ago, is joined in the lineup by catcher Sean Wetherell and right fielder Dan Cutkomp, who hit .481 and .341, respectively.
Moline is led offensively by Appalachian State-bound outfielder Matt Brill, who batted .348 a season ago and was an All-Big 6 selection. United Township sports Bryce Luken who was errorless at shortstop last season and hit .323.
Who are the top returning pitchers?The Western Big 6 sports five pitchers headed to Division I colleges.
Alleman's Cody Sedlock is going to Illinois next season. He was selected to the All-Big 6 team and was a 2012 all-state selection.
Moline's Dallas DeVrieze is joining teammate Brill at Appalachian State. DeVrieze was 6-3 last year and threw three shutouts.
United Township's Connor Gunnaman and Rock Island's Matt Erickson may be a bit overshadowed in this group. Gunnaman led the UT pitching staff last season and was honorable mention all-conference and an All-Metro selection. Matt Erickson has won playoff openers in each of the last two seasons for the Rocks and was honorable mention All-Metro last year.
What Big 6 players are going to surprise us?Alleman's Taner Ledezma had a down year a season ago, but should be better as the No. 5 hitter for the Pioneers.
Early on, Rock Island's Paul Sanders has been a key cog in the lineup that is missing Scudder. It appears as if he could be a tough out all season.
Moline's Jake Viaene was lost in the shuffle of catchers last season behind Wetherell and Scudder, but should follow up a solid season and be a leader for the Maroons this season. Teammate Luke Spiegel saw action late in his junior year last spring and looks to play a big part in the Maroons' offense.
What newcomers will make an impact?Rock Island junior pitcher Michael Peters has already committed to Indiana State and he will be the second starter for the Rocks. He should be a key cog if the Rocks are going to win the conference title. Defense behind him should be solid, as the Rocks have three shortstops playing short, third and second. The second baseman in that trio is Trey Sigel, another newcomer who should make an impact.
Kevin O'Keeffe will be filling Alleman's void in centerfield created by the graduation of his brother, Ryan. O'Keeffe will hope to provide power and speed from the bottom of the Pioneer lineup.
Sophomore Brett Newberg will eat innings on both the mound and at first base for the Maroons.
Changes on and off the field:United Township has a new man at the helm in Steve Yount. This is Yount's first season as a baseball coach, but he is taking over a young, but experienced, Panther team that could sneak up on foes this season.
Rock Island is in the midst of replacing its backstop and putting in a permanent outfield fence. This will be the first time the Rocks will have a permanent outfield fence running from centerfield to the rightfield line. That area will no longer be used for football practices.