BETHANY -- Tread lightly when trying to figure out who the best table tennis player at Okaw Valley is.
Several hands shoot up when Timberwolves coach Andrew Hagerman posed the question, and there's plenty of heated debate on who holds the ping pong crown.
Games aside, it underscored just how loose and yet extremely competitive Okaw Valley is to start the year. After waiting for the snow to melt this week, they slammed the ball all around the field on a talented Windsor/Stewardson-Strasburg for a 13-3 win.
"I said fewer words the first two weeks in practice than I ever have in my life," Hagerman said. "When I'm about to correct someone, I've got three upperclassmen telling the kid to do this, do that. That's not the way we do this. Nothing under your glove -- there's all kinds of examples."
Okaw Valley came ready Friday afternoon and Hatchets' starter Derek Moschenrose was on the receiving end of the assault. The first eight batters reached base -- even with Cody Drake out of the lineup with an injury -- and the Timberwolves quickly grabbed a 7-0 lead. Four more runs came in the second, and Garrett Fritz worked his way through the Hatchets for five innings from the mound.
"Our bats are obviously warmed up," Fritz said. "We just got to get better, keep getting better and play for the postseason."
That's the thing with Okaw Valley. This is a team made up of a massive junior class and a couple key seniors. For many teams, this might be a year to build up some experience and hope it pays off in a big way next year.
But with a state run two years ago and a weird postseason exit last year after having to play back-to-back days, Okaw Valley's ready now.
"These guys don't want to fail," Hagerman said. "They want to be a part of something special three years in a row -- even before our state run we were a 20-win team. I call them self-checked. Sometimes I have to interject things, but they all care and they all understand the game."
Offensively, it starts with Fritz. The junior who hit .583 last season, kicked off 2017 with a 3-for-3 day that included a double and an opposite field home run on the first two pitches he saw. Tanner Coleman, who wasn't far behind hitting .437 in 2016, and Conner Cloyd added two hits apiece to keep the pressure on throughout the order.
"When we're at full strength, our bats are really scary," Hagerman said.
That's not much of a surprise considering Okaw Valley's offensive prowess last year. Where the question marks currently sit is with the pitching. Fritz is now the ace of the staff after the graduation of Drew Fruchtl and Dylan Park, and Fritz was effective Friday. He allowed seven hits while striking out four.
Fritz was thrilled with the win even if he wasn't so high on his own performance.
"It wasn't my best outing. I didn't have all of my pitches going good," he said. "But the first game, it kind of shocked me. I didn't think we'd do this. (W/SS) will win 20 games this year."
The Hatchets were coming off a big season-opening win of its own, but couldn't string hits together until late. Six different batters connected for a hit and two more reached base, but Okaw Valley cut off several lead runners and turned an inning-ending double play in the fourth.
"They pass the eye test when they get off the bus," Hagerman said of the Hatchets. "They swing 1 through 9. They don't have an easy out in that lineup."
It's the start of what Okaw Valley hopes is another long season, and Friday was that first step back toward Peoria.
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"We're ready for it," Tanner Coleman said. "We can do it, we just have to keep our mindset on it."
While Okaw Valley is replacing two great pitchers for the second year in a row, there's a rotation behind Fritz that should help ease the transition. The Timberwolves worked on building that up, especially considering the new pitch count rules.
As for Fritz, he's concentrated on developing complementary pitches to his fastball.
"They struggled hitting the curveball -- I've really worked on that," Fritz said. "I guess now I have to work on my changeup."
Not on him
The Hatchets return much of last year's team, including senior Nic Hutchinson. He threw four scoreless innings against Shelbyville on Thursday, then opened up Friday's game with a hit.
And few are as good as him defensively. The center fielder didn't have an error last year, and when Okaw Valley had an opportunity to push a runner home on a hit to center, Hagerman quickly threw his hands up.
"Not on him," Hagerman yelled.
"Hutchinson's as good of a hitter as we'll face all year, and that was a great win for us because they're one of the best in the area. No question about it."
Table tennis is really no joke with the Timberwolves. There's a table at the school that's hotly contested, and Hagerman has one at his house as well.
"We had a party at my house after a week of practice," he said. "And they're down there until 2 in the morning -- it gets pretty intense."
Hagerman nominated his son, Sam, as the best player on the team.
"And he'll sit here and tell you about it for an hour and a half."
Drake jammed his thumb in P.E., and Hagerman said the junior will find out the prognosis in a couple of days. The center fielder had the fourth-best batting average on the team last year, hitting .436 with three homers.