COLEMAN - Never mind defending its state title - the Coleman Cougar baseball team will be hard-pressed to defend its M&O Conference title this spring.

Coleman returns three starters from its Wisconsin Division 4 state championship team. The pitching could be exceptional and the middle of the batting order could be potent. Other than that, questions abound.

Nevertheless, the Cougars are ranked second in the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association preseason poll.

"I told the kids, the pressure, don't let it worry you," Coleman coach Kent Casper said. "Go out and play. Yes, we won a state championship. The boys have confidence from the senior leadership we have."

Peshtigo, Wausaukee and Crivitz each return their nucleus from a year ago. Casper picks the Bulldogs as the M&O favorites, and Crivitz and Wausaukee won regional titles last year.

"It's going to be a very, very tough conference," the Cougar coach said. "The conference probably overall is going to be the best we've had in awhile top to bottom. When you look at those people having six or more starters coming back and we have three, there's a big difference."

While others have more experience, the Cougars have the Dynamic Duo - seniors Mason Mergener and Derek Marquardt. On the mound, they posted a combined record of 21-0 last season and 32-3 over the past two seasons.

Mergener, the staff ace the past two seasons, isn't overpowering but has learned the art of pitching - changing speeds and locations.

"Mason is a gamer," Casper said. "In every sport he can't stand to lose. He knows what the tendencies of everybody are."

He also led the team with a .588 batting average a year ago. When not pitching, he can catch and play the infield.

Marquardt throws hard and improved his game with a Wisconsin all-star team last summer.

"Derek's really starting to come into his own. I'm looking for big things from him on the mound," according to Casper.

Marquardt batted near the .400 mark the The only other senior is infielder/outfielder Mitch Woulf, a reserve last season.

Junior Trevor Seewald is the returning starter. He elavated his game late last season and went 4 for 5 in the state title win. He started the last two seasons at third base but has moved to shortstop.

"I think he can be a very, very good shortstop," the coach said. "He's got a very good glove and he's got a strong arm."

Seewald, the team's No. 3 pitcher, brings speed to the lineup.

Juniors Jackson Margis and Dexter Karban also played in a reserve role last season. Karban will play at first and Margis is an outfielder. Both are state wrestling medalists and are gamers, Casper said.

The other junior, outfielder Garrett Kostrova, is a first-year player.

The sophomores are catcher Alex Stodola and outfielder Hunter Patz. Stodola has a good arm and may be the team's primary catcher this spring.

"He's got a lot of ability," Casper said. "I'm looking for him to really help us. It's just a matter of him settling in and feeling confident."

Freshman Blake Margis will play at third base. Other freshmen include Nick Sailer, Derick Teteak, Hunter Stodola, Kevin Lansin and Andrew DeKeyser. Sailer and Teteak second basemen. Lansin, an outfielder, has good speed.

When Marquardt isn't pitching, he's one of the best centerfielders around.

There's no way to expect the Cougars to be as potent offensively as they were last year, when they smashed run records at state.

"We're not going to score runs like we did over the years, and this year it could be a struggle," Casper said. "Because we're young we'll start to get better."

In Coleman's state title run, interchangeable parts were instrumental to the team's success.

"It all depends on who's on the mound where people will play," Casper said.

The assistant coaches are Chris Gould, Todd Olsen, Doug Jahnke and Don Engebretson.