Bruce Herstine knew this season wasn't going to be easy for his Beaver Area baseball team.
After spending the past two years in Class AAA, the Bobcats dropped a classification and were realigned into what many consider one of the most challenging baseball sections in WPIAL Class AA.
"I don't know about the rest of Class AA, but I do know that just about all of the teams in our section can compete with anyone in Triple-A," Herstine said. "It's hard to say how good this section actually is, but I do know that when it's time for the [WPIAL] playoffs, there's going to be a good team left out.
"I just hope it's not us."
Besides welcoming back perennial-power and two-time defending state champion Riverside as well as defending WPIAL champion Ellwood City, the super group of teams from both Beaver and Lawrence counties added defending WPIAL Class A winner Neshannock.
Through Tuesday, Beaver (7-2, 7-1), Riverside (9-3, 6-2) and Neshannock (8-3, 5-3) were ranked by the Post-Gazette as the top three Class AA teams with Riverside and Neshannock ranked one and two. All three along with Laurel (6-4, 6-2) are battling for the section title.
"Coming into the season, I thought we would be able to compete with anybody," said Herstine, who is back for his eighth season leading the Bobcats. "You know you're going to have a great team in Riverside and Neshannock is so well-coached and is always good. It also looks like Laurel has been a surprise. The rest of the league is still solid."
Beaver began its campaign with a 9-8 non-section loss against West Allegheny. The Bobcats, however, jumped right into Section 5-AA play by knocking off Riverside, 9-1, on April 4 and cruised past its next four section opponents.
"We've won games when we didn't even play well," Herstine said. "We started out playing real sloppy. We had a lot of errors in the beginning.
"As the games have gone on, we've gotten better."
Beaver suffered its first section loss against Neshannock on April 16. Despite taking a one-run lead in the third inning, the Bobcats ended up falling to the Lancers, 2-1.
"We just couldn't push our runners across the plate," Herstine said. "We left too many men on base. We very well could be undefeated."
Two days later on April 18, Beaver flexed its offensive muscle with a 12-1 win against Beaver Falls. Senior catcher Ben Herstine, who is a son of the coach, powered the Bobcats' lineup with three home runs, including a grand slam in the third inning, and eight RBIs. Senior infielder Jordan Yates and senior pitcher Austin Ross also hit home runs against Beaver Falls.
Ross, who has accepted a scholarship to play for Division I Radford University in Virginia next year, has been the Bobcats' ace pitcher. A right-hander, he struck out seven during his lone loss against Neshannock. He entered this week with a 3-1 record.
"Austin has been very good," Bruce Herstine said. "He has one loss and that's not on him because we only scored one run that day and we lost the game because of errors."
Junior second baseman Alex Fowst, senior shortstop Austin Logan and senior first baseman Nick Hinman along with either Ross or Yates at third base make up Beaver's veteran infield, while its senior-lead outfield consists of left fielder Jaylon Lawson, center fielder Matt Rost and right fielder Anthony Fidurski.
"We expect to win every year," Bruce Herstine said. "I usually don't talk about our team like that, but we have a solid team right now. We don't really have many weak spots."
Beaver opened its second half of section play by defeating Riverside, 8-6, on Monday and was scheduled to play Laurel Wednesday. The Bobcats are slated for a rematch against Neshannock next Wednesday.
"This is going to be a tough week for us," Herstine said Sunday. "We need to win at least two of those three games. We just have to stay consistent.
"We're playing well enough to win, but we haven't reached our true potential. We have a solid team. I just know the best has yet to come with this team."