The Rio Railmen have played tough the last three years but failed to crack the top half of the Eastern Section, finishing eighth in each of those seasons.
Rio manager/player Steven Plenty believes the returning core from those teams, plus some new acquisitions, can get the Railmen over the hump and back into the playoffs.
“Last year we had some close games, a few that we lost late where we had the lead, and that’s a positive that comes out of those types of games,” Plenty said of last year’s group that finished 4-14.
“The group playing together every year that you add on helps an awful lot because you understand what to expect out of each other, and that usually results in good baseball.”
Leading this year’s charge is a deep pitching staff anchored by the left-handed veteran Jeff Jenkins and bolstered by some younger arms. Alongside Jenkins last year, Danny Strause provided depth, as well as Trevor Kearney, a 2016 Rio graduate who helped lead the Vikings to the state championship in 2015.
Along with that group, Plenty will also have Drew Slade, Trajan Prochnow, Andrew Gibbons and Ricky Donovan to turn to. Slade has recently played in the Northwoods League for both the Madison Mallards and Rochester Honkers, while Prochnow recently wrapped up his freshman year at UW-Oshkosh.
“It’s obviously a good shot in the arm to have some talent like that on your staff,” Plenty said.
According to Plenty, the Railmen will also have plenty of depth in the outfield. When not on the hill, Rio can rely on Prochnow and Jenkins in the outfield, along with veterans Brennan Kearney, Dakotah Kirchenwitz, Riley Schmidt and Nick Henke.
The Railmen will also have Decker Dyle at their disposal for the first part of the season as well as newcomer Zach Ziedler. Around the infield, Plenty will rely on a tight core of Danny Strause at third base, Trevor Kearney at shortstop and Micah Zirbel at second.
Roaming around the infield will be Taylor Manuel, something Plenty knows gives the Railmen a lot of flexibility.
“There’s just a lot going on where guys will miss a game here and there, so having an individual like Taylor, he can move around and play every position in the infield,” Plenty said. “That really helps solidify us, having a real utility player and just a great guy to have on the team. He keeps it light and always has a good attitude.”
Along with the infield, Plenty said Manuel can catch, as well as Jake Straks and Prochnow. Rounding out the group of catchers is Chainey Brewer.
Brewer, a Rio native makes the move to the Railmen after playing for fellow Eastern Section team Columbus the last couple of seasons, and like Manuel, Brewer brings lots of versatility to the Railmen.
“He’s just a baseball player; he’s grown up in a baseball family so he understands the game well and just gives us some versatility there,” Plenty said.
Even with the losses of Carter Jenatschek and Tyler Brodie, all the returning players and additions has Plenty believing the Railmen are in a prime position to rise through the Eastern Section ranks, but that won’t be easy.
Plenty said “there’s some pretty good depth,” among the rest of the league, so reliability will be important to the Railmen’s success.
“You have to try to get some consistency each week because we’ll have a good game every week with whoever we play,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of talent within the group so it should be a lot of fun.”
The Railmen have shown they can hang so far with a pair of wins to start the season. Rio took down DeForest, 11-6, in its opener on May 5 before throttling Columbus, 17-2, in seven innings on May 12.
Rio will have a chance to build off its unbeaten start with five of its next seven games at home. Regardless of site, Plenty said “it’s going to take going out, playing the game and getting a result.”
Good news is that the Railmen have plenty of drive. According to Plenty, Rio hasn’t reached the Eastern Section finals since 2012, which has helped to generate a lot of fervor among the players.
“There’s a good camaraderie among our guys and the relationships have been developing over the years,” Plenty said. “They’re all results driven, they wouldn’t be playing otherwise. They enjoy the competition and have high expectations.”