Mike Shuleski isn't worried about keeping his Hopewell High School baseball team motivated.
Entering his first season as Vikings head coach, Shuleski served as an assistant coach since joining the program in 2004 and has a lot of confidence in the veteran group he will put on the field this year.
"We've been in the gym for weeks upon weeks now, and keeping them focused has not been an issue," said Shuleski, a math teacher at Hopewell. "Our seniors are in control. When it's time to start practice, they have everything and the entire team ready to go.
"The guys have taken it upon themselves to get going. We have a lot of leadership from our senior class."
Shuleski, who played baseball and graduated from South Side Beaver in 1998, takes over a program that has had only three head coaches in the past 50 years. After legendary coach Joe Colella died in 2011, longtime assistant coach Joe Rubino took over the team last season.
Rubino, however, was fired this past year after an incident involving a female student.
"Growing up and playing baseball down the road at South Side, I've always known about the legacy coach Colella created for Hopewell's baseball program," said Shuleski, who played for Colella's Hopewell American Legion team as well as collegiately at Bethany College in West Virginia.
"There's a great tradition with this program, mainly created by coach Colella and now it continues through the youth program with the parents and community spring-boarding players up to the varsity level."
Last season, Hopewell's high school team went 11-3 in Section 1-AAA and 18-5 overall. The Vikings ended their campaign with a pair of one-run losses during the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs.
They dropped a 9-8 decision against Belle Vernon in the semifinals and then lost to Thomas Jefferson in the third-place consolation game, 2-1.
"The hard part of last season was that we were very close to being section champs and very close to being WPIAL champs," said Shuleski, who served as the varsity pitching coach last season. "That's definitely something the senior class has had in the back of their minds, and it's been easier for me to motivate them.
"They've had a taste for how close they've been. Now, we hope to get over that hump and knock off tough teams."
Shuleski welcomes back a veteran core from last year's roster, including a nucleus of seniors, catcher Clayton Covalt, shortstop Ryan Cox, pitcher/center fielder Stefan Mrkonja, first baseman Tim Hughes, third baseman Arion Sepp, second baseman Logan Johnston and left fielder Joe Kunzmann.
Two juniors, catcher Mike Austin and right fielder Shane Martin, also return this season.
Cox [St. Bonaventure], Mrkonja [Point Park], Hughes [West Liberty] and Sepp [Seton Hill] already have committed to play baseball in college.
Mrkonja, who supplied some pop in the Vikings lineup with 4 home runs and 23 RBIs last season, also returns as the ace of the Vikings' pitching staff. A left-hander, he posted a 5-1 record as a junior. Covalt, a righty, and Kunzmann, another lefty, will follow in the rotation, while Johnston and Sepp are expected to be used in relief roles.
"The one thing I like about this team is the number of arms we have," Shuleski said. "Stef is our No. 1 guy. Clayton and Joe will follow. We have three guys who can start most of our games and a few more guys who should give us depth in relief."
Shuleski expects some pretty stiff competition from Section 1-AAA opponents Ambridge, Blackhawk, Central Valley, Montour and West Allegheny.
"You have to do a lot of little things to win or lose a baseball game," Shuleski said. "I've been telling the kids that 60 percent of baseball games get lost and 40 percent get won, and that definitely is true in high school.
"We have to do our best at those little things in order to win one-run games. Play defense and move baserunners -- that's what coach Colella preached right there."