Faith Lutheran right-hander Brandon Johnson just smiled and shook his head after teammate Erich Uelmen said he threw harder than Johnson.
“No, that’s not true,” Johnson said. “I got to 93 (mph) last year in state, and he got to 93 this year. So we’re head-to-head, and it should be fun this year to see who can come out on top.”
With Johnson, Uelmen and fellow senior Jordan Dreibelbis anchoring the pitching staff, the Crusaders look to be in the driver’s seat as they try to repeat as Division I-A state champs.
“Especially the way our schedule sets up, it just works out great,” Faith Lutheran coach Blair Neagle said of his pitching staff. “For the most part, I think they’re pretty interchangeable. But it’s definitely not the norm for a high school staff, so we feel very fortunate.”
Johnson, alone, might be enough to make the Crusaders the favorite to repeat. The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound senior, who has signed with Kansas, was a second team all-state selection last season after going 8-2 with a 1.64 ERA. He struck out 81 in 51 1/3 innings.
Uelmen and Dreibelbis give the team two more ace arms. Uelmen, 4-2 with a 2.22 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings, has signed with Cal Poly. Dreibelbis went 5-1 with a 1.45 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings and has orally committed to Division II Dixie State.
“When teams are coming in, they have no idea who they’re going to face,” Uelmen said. “And once they get through one, they might have to face another.”
They bring different styles.
“Johnson, he’s just a power pitcher,” Neagle said. “He throws a real heavy ball. He commands his breaking pitch pretty good. He doesn’t walk a lot of guys, likes to force contact.”
Uelmen may match Johnson’s velocity, but he gets more side-to-side movement on his pitches with a running fastball and a slider instead of Johnson’s downward curve.
Dreibelbis doesn’t throw as hard, but the 6-5, 180-pounder relies more on movement.
“Jordan has a splitter,” Uelmen said. “No one else has that kind of downward (movement).”
Neagle said all three pitchers get along and push each other.
“I think they complement each other very well,” Neagle said. “They work with each other very well. There’s a little friendly competition.”
Uelmen said he keeps a radar gun in his bag in case Johnson wants to see who actually throws harder.
“It helps overall, not always being the workhorse on the pitching staff,” Johnson said. “Having a competition like that kind of betters both of us. It’s definitely a competition that’ll strengthen us.”
Neagle worries about his team’s focus coming off last year’s state championship. His star pitchers agree keeping a level head may be key to repeating.
“Sometimes we can get our heads a little bit messed up and get a little cocky,” Dreibelbis said.
“A lot of times we’re just thinking (the title is) ours. We don’t think anyone can come take it from us. But there’s some teams out there who might be able to, so we’ve just got to keep our heads straight.”
Johnson doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“A lot of the time seniors usually get lazy,” Johnson said. “Since we all have plans to go to college, a lot of people think that we don’t really care about our last year. But we’ve really focused on this year more than last year.”
Contact prep sports editor Damon Seiters at 702-380-4587 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DamonSeiters on Twitter.