The Mark Twain Tigers baseball team does not shy away from the heightened expectations it has for the 2017 season.

The Mark Twain Tigers baseball team does not shy away from the heightened expectations it has for the 2017 season.

Loaded with seven seniors, Mark Twain enters coach Ian Hatton's second year in charge of the program with a far different mindset than the first.

The Tigers' primary focus is not only a winning record.

The Eastern Missouri Conference championship is at the top of their list of priorities this season, which begins Monday at Palmyra.

“There's a lot of excitement this year,” Hatton said. “The expectations are definitely a lot different than they were going into last year. Our guys knew last year that it was kind of a 'let's see where we're at.' We got seven wins last year, and this year, it's all about how we respond to expectations being higher. Not only from the school, parents and community, but our own guys. We expect a lot out of ourselves this year.”

Mark Twain returns five senior standouts who started every game last season, including Loren Carlisle, Parker Eddington, Brady Hooley, Cole Johnson and Corey Kunkel.

Also in the mix are seniors Daniel Deener and Bailey McMillen, who is back after sitting out last season due to injury.

“It's going to be the seniors that are going to make us go, and hopefully everybody will fall into place after that,” Hatton said.

On the mound this season, Mark Twain will heavily rely upon Kunkel, who logged 39 innings last year as 2016 graduate Collin Pettitt was the ace of the staff. McMillen, a lefty, also figures to be a top pitcher for the squad.

“As long as we can do our pitching, I think our lineup is going to be top-line,” Kunkel said.

At the top of the lineup, Hooley and Eddington combined for 39 runs last season. Hooley led the squad with a .558 on-base percentage.

Expected to pack the punch in the middle of the order are McMillen, Kunkel and Carlisle, among others. Kunkel led the Tigers in batting average (.288), hits (17) and RBIs (12) last year, while Carlisle finished with eight RBIs and 12 runs.

“We're going to be tested early in the season,” Carlisle said. “We've got Palmyra first game. We're going to be playing QND, really tough team. But we're just going to see what we're made of and do what we have to do to win.

“We don't get down on each other. We pick each other up. We don't discourage. We try to help out as much as we can.”

Hatton said the upcoming campaign is an opportunity for his players to display what they're capable of.

“We expect to be competing for a conference championship this year,” he said. “You've got Bowling Green always sitting there, and Wright City. But with the guys that we have and the experience coming back, I think there's no doubt everybody is excited, and the expectation is that we're right at the top competing for a conference championship at the end of the year.”