BELOIT - Midwest Conference head baseball coaches didn't ponder their annual pre-season poll long.
They just picked the 2018 standings to look exactly the same as they appeared in 2017, putting St. Norbert on top and Beloit College right behind.
"We're more interested in where we finish than where we're picked at the start," the Buccaneers' Dave DeGeorge said.
The Beloit coach since 1991, DeGeorge figures he has three main questions to answer in the early season.
"We have to figure out first base, an outfield spot and what our pitching is going to look like," he said.
The search for answers could start as early as this weekend. The Bucs are scheduled to travel to Galesburg, Ill., to play Knox College on Sunday if the weather cooperates and field conditions improve.
"When we originally scheduled it I thought it would take nearly a miracle to make it happen," DeGeorge said. "If we can play, that will be great before we head to Florida. But realistically, it's probably a real outside chance."
The Bucs will play in Florida in the RussMatt Invitational in Auburndale and Winter Haven March 10-17.
Beloit has a major hole to fill in its lineup with the graduation of first baseman Kam Sallee.
"I'm pretty sure he's our all-time career RBI leader," DeGeorge said. "He made a lot of (opposing teams) nervous. Pitchers got incredibly careful against him and that's the worst thing they can do."
The leading candidates to replace him are a pair of freshmen, Ethan Stoneberg and Hunter Fujitani. Stoneberg is from Yorkville, Ill., and Fujitani from Kane'ohe, Hawaii.
"Both will be outstanding players, but they're freshmen," DeGeorge said. "Kam was a way better player as a senior than when he was a freshman."
In the outfield, the Bucs have a terrific duo returning in Jalen Davis and Brice Call. Davis earned ABCA/Rawlings All-Central Region Second Team, D3baseball.com Third Team All-Central Region and First Team All-MWC. He led the Bucs with a .399 batting average, an on-base percentage of .476, 44 runs, 65 hits and 17 doubles. Davis also left a mark on the Beloit record book with the second-most at-bats (163), runs, hits and doubles and the third-most total bases (87) in a season in program history. His .387 career batting average is first all-time.
The Bucs lost their third starting outfield, Mike Gulve, to graduation. There's no shortage of potential replacements for Gulve, including a bevy of seniors as well as talented freshman Nick Schmidt. DeGeorge is also looking for a way to get another freshman, catcher Bronson Balholm, in the lineup. He's blocked behind the plate by senior incumbent Jeremy Dutton so Balholm may see duty in the outfield or at first base.
Dutton was an All-MWC player last season, scoring the second-most runs (31), the third-most hits (46) and doubles (15).
On the mound, the Bucs graduated No. 1 pitcher Austin Padjen. Last season's No. 2 starter, Danny Belling, had a terrific season, going 6-2. He'll step up to No. 1.
After that the Bucs have a lot of pitchers who saw some duty last season, but will have to step up this year. They include seniors Colton Lopez, Steven O'Neil, David Hlawek and Jamie Huntley as well as juniors David Harrson, Mike Weeden, Josh Nelson and Robbie Bulin.
DeGeorge is very high on 6-foot-3 sophomores Justin Kopech and Connor McCloskey.
"Kopech was a strong pitcher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnway (Ill.)," DeGeorge said. "That says something right there. Stevenson has around 4,000 students. He's a big kid who knows what he is doing. He think he can be very good. McCloskey is the most improved player on the team. He's our hardest thrower. He was our best pitcher last fall and we have very high expectations for him."
Once again, DeGeorge has some terrific freshmen who'll get a long look, too, including Jacob Sligar from San Jose, Calif., and Keith Haina from Mililani, Hawaii.
"This may be a season where we have two or three guys sharing a game and then use a key reliever at the end," DeGeorge said.
The three big questions aside, there is a good reason the Bucs are picked to finish in the top two in the league.
"We have the best catcher in the league (Dutton),"DeGeorge said. "We have the best shortstop in the league (all-MWC Mark Christine). When Ethan Conley became our starting second baseman last season we became the team we thought we could be. Terrence Cribbs started half our games at third a year ago and he should have a real strong year. In the outfield, we return two outstanding players in Call and Davis."
• NEAR MISS LAST YEAR: The Bucs were 19-19-1 overall a ago and 11-5-1 in the MWC. They lost back-to-back games to St. Norbert in the MWC Tournament in Grinnell, Iowa, 6-4 and 9-5.
In addition to Sallee, Gulve and Padjen they also lost off that team Austin Martinez, Zach Jenkins and Shane Wood.
• HOME OPENER: The Bucs will host Milwaukee School of Engineering on March 25.
• COACHES' POLL: After St. Norbert and Beloit in the North Division, the coaches pick Ripon and Lawrence in the North. In the five-team South, they pick Grinnell No. 1, followed by Cornell, Monmouth, Knox and Illinois College.