Hannibal baseball coach Daryl Zessin likens his philosophy of how he will run the Pirates this season to the way manager Joe Maddon steers the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs.

Hannibal baseball coach Daryl Zessin likens his philosophy of how he will run the Pirates this season to the way manager Joe Maddon steers the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs.

No idea or strategy is off limits.

The ballplayers need only bring their glove and bat and be ready to go to work wherever and whenever deemed best.

“Still looking to see where all the pieces will fit,” said Zessin, in his fifth year leading the program. “It may be a Joe Maddon-type year with some key utility guys moving in around the lineup depending on who is pitching that day or who has the hot hand. We have competition at most every position this year.”

Coming off a tough 5-15 season, Hannibal is young but returns experienced talent for the 2017 campaign, which kicks off at 5 p.m. on Tuesday against Kirksville at Veterans Sports Complex.

With a roster full of first-time varsity players last year, Hannibal faced a steep learning curve and also encountered injuries to a pair of starting pitchers. 

“We started six freshmen and sophomores last year,” Zessin said. “All those reps just make them better. The maturity, the physical development, it makes a big deal.” 

Three seniors — Chandler Moffitt, Scot Roberts and Noah Zahn — lead the charge for the Pirates this year.

Moffitt, who Zessin named the team's most valuable player a year ago, will again serve in the leadoff spot in the lineup. Moffitt led the Pirates with a .323 batting average and 14 runs scored in 2016.

“Leading off, either I just try to make the pitcher throw as many pitches as possible or if that first pitch is right there, I’m just going to hit that one,” Moffitt said of setting the tone. 

Roberts figures to contribute both on the mound and as an infielder. He joins juniors Wyatt Waelder and Colton Brown as members of a 3-man starting pitching staff. Waelder led the group with 42 1/3 innings pitched a year ago. 

“Colton and Wyatt carried our pitching staff last year,” Roberts said. “They were both amazing. I think they kind of got snubbed on the all-conference honors. All three of us are healthy going in this year, so I think we’ll have one of the best staffs in the conference.”

Zahn, an outfielder and relief pitcher, is primed to make an impact as well in his final high school season. Junior Payton Phillips and sophomore Braden Schlueter join him out of the bullpen.

“We’re just looking to get more wins than we did last year,” Zahn said. “There’s a lot of young guys on the team who can step up and throw.”

As an offense, Hannibal raised its batting average up 25 points from 2015 to 2016 (.203 to .228). With another year of experience under their belts, Zessin expects that number to continue to rise.

Roberts finished with a .294 average last season, while junior John Trenhaile stepped up to produce 12 RBIs out of his 11 hits on the year. 

“(We) should be able to keep the team batting average rising, and if we do we can be a team that will be exciting to watch this year,” Zessin said.

The Hannibal squad will have a tough slate of games battling North Central Missouri Conference opponents. Last year, Boonville and Fulton placed second and fourth, respectively, in the Class 4 state tourney.

But come time for the Class 5 district playoffs, the team knows one thing for certain: they won't have to face Francis Howell, the team that has knocked the Pirates out the past three seasons. 

“We’ve gotten closer to them every year, but when you have to face the state champ in the first round of districts two out of the past three years, that’s a tough road,” Zessin said of facing Francis Howell. “Maybe this is the year we can win a game or if we’re fortunate maybe win two or maybe win the district. Who’s to say? That’s why we play the game.” 

Zessin said his goal for the team is to finish with more wins than losses and be playing its best come the home stretch of the season.

“There’s no reason we can’t be a .500 ball club this year,” he said. “Considering where we’ve been and where we could go, that’s realism for us right now. Last year was the first year in a little while that we actually had a group of kids that gelled together, worked together, had fun together, and it showed. Our record didn’t show, but that’s part of that maturity that now we should put all that together and make some noise.”

Roberts said while it may take time for the Pirates to turn the corner early on in their schedule, they hope to be a force to be reckoned with during the postseason. 

“You’re not going to want to play us in May,” the senior said. “We might be easy in March or April, but once we get to May, you’re not going to want to play us. That’s when we’re going to be rolling. Right when we get to districts, right when we get to end of our season, we’re going to be playing together, have 20 games under belt and hopefully have a pretty good record.”