Bar set high for defending champion Athletics

Okanagan A's open B.C. Premier Baseball League regular season Saturday against Coquitlam

Third baseman Dawson Yates and the defending champion Okanagan Athletics open the 2013 B.C. Premier Baseball League season this weekend at home to Coquitlam.

As the defending B.C. Premier Baseball League champs, the Okanagan Athletics are fully cognizant of the target they’ll be wearing on their backs from the first pitch of the 2013 season.

Head coach Evan Bailey and his A’s wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We know teams will be coming after us and it’s a good feeling to know we’re going to be the hunted rather than the one doing the hunting,” said A’s head coach Evan Bailey. “We’re aware of the expectations and I’d like to think the boys are ready to step up and meet those. It’s a tight-knit, gritty group of kids who will get after it. The boys are eager to get going.”

In 2012, the A’s claimed the first PBL title by a Kelowna-based team since the program was launched in 2004.

After raising their championship banner this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Elks Stadium, the Athletics will begin defence of their title with a doubleheader (2 and 4:30) against the Coquitlam Reds. The teams will again meet for a pair on Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Despite losses of key players like Brandon Sonnenberg, Nate Ackerman, Nolan Handley and Dillon Kakoshke, the A’s return 12 players from last year’s championship squad, including the entire starting infield.

Leading hitter (.368) and third baseman Dawson Yates, shortstop/pitcher Josh Croft (.308, 30 RBIs) and catcher/pitcher Morgan Lofstrom will provide veteran leadership for the A’s this season.

However, Lofstrom will miss the A’s first eight games while he attends Team Canada’s junior camp in Florida.

The A’s will have an entirely new starting outfield, which will include new recruit Surya Viswanathan who hit .320 last season with the North Delta junior Blue Jays.

The starting rotation will feature James Walker (5-4, 2.19 ERA), Morgan Lofstrom (5-2, 1.24 ERA), Trevor Lofstrom and Jared Young, while Croft (5-1, 2.00 ERA) will again be the A’s closer.

Based on the experience of the returning core of players, Bailey likes his team’s prospects again in 2013.

“I think we’ll actually be a little stronger but in a different way,” he said. “We won’t have quite the offensive powerhouse, but we should still be pretty good offensively. We’ll be better on the mound and I think our infield will be better…simply because the guys have another year of experience.”

Bailey expects his club to be in the mix for a top-four finish for the second straight year.

“We want to be in the top four again and get a home seed in the playoffs,” said Bailey. “The guys get ahead of themselves a little bit and talk about repeating. My goal is just one step at a time. Let’s aim for a top-four and take it from there.”

The A’s will play their first 12 games at home, followed by eight on the road.

Meanwhile, the junior Athletics will also open their season this weekend as they host the White Rock Tritons, Saturday and Sunday at Lombardy Park.