With so much youth in the starting lineup, it could be argued last season was a bridge year for the Riverside-Brookfield High School baseball team.

Theoretically, the purpose of 2016 was for sophomores like John Kosner, Jarod Turina and Howie Hatton to experience growing pains as first-year varsity starters en route to better days down the line.

Instead, the three players exceeded expectations by solidifying the middle of the lineup both offensively and defensively. Add to the mix all-conference shortstop Kyle Fitzgerald and other contributors like Sam Habayeb, Asher Runyan and Matt Armenta  and the Bulldogs finished 23-14 overall with a 12-7 record in the Metro Suburban Conference.

RBHS earned a share of the conference championship with Glenbard South, Wheaton Academy and Aurora Central Catholic.

“Our goals are the same every year,” RBHS coach Dallas Till said. “We want to play our best baseball at the end of the season, win conference and compete for a regional championship.”

With seven returning starters and a successful season under their belt, the Bulldogs’ expectations are suddenly as high as ever.

“Barring injuries, we feel like we can compete for the conference championship again,” Till said. “Illiana Christian, Wheaton Academy, Aurora Central Catholic and Glenbard South should all be competing for the title. It should be a very tight race.”

Fitzgerald, who has signed to play at Northwest Florida State Junior College, is the Bulldogs’ unquestioned star. He can hit for average and power, plays air-tight defense and provides leadership.

The rest of the infield will include Runyan at third base, Kosner at second base and Hatton at first base.

Armenta anchors the outfield with Turina and Hatton possibly seeing playing time in the outfield as well.

Habayeb and Runyan are two hard-throwing right-handers who will headline the pitching staff.

Till is excited about the additions of sophomore pitcher/infielder Ryan Cermak and freshman Michael Schicker.

Along with Fitzgerald, Kosner, Runyan and Turina were All-Metro Suburban Conference selections in 2016.

Like always, Till and longtime assistant coach Mark Ruge will put a premium on fundamentals and playing the game the right away.

“We should be strong defensively,” Till said. “Our approach is to play solid defense, limit walks and errors, and put together enough runs to win games.

“I think we lack pitching depth and team speed. Our strengths should be our infield and outfield defense and depth in the outfield.”

Riverside-Brookfield baseball scouting report

Riverside-Brookfield Bulldogs

Head coach: Dallas Till (7th year at RBHS; 13th overall)

Record last year: 23-14, 12-7 Metro Suburban Conference (4-way tie for 1st); lost to St. Laurence in Morton Regional final.

Top Players: Kyle Fitzgerald, senior, shortstop; Sam Habayeb, senior, pitcher; Matt Armenta, senior, outfielder; Asher Runyan, senior, pitcher/third baseman; John Kosner, junior, second baseman; Jarod Turina, junior, catcher/outfielder; Howie Hatton, junior, first baseman/outfielder

Outlook: RBHS always fields a very competitive team, but there is a quiet optimism that this year’s Bulldogs could be special. At a minimum, contending for another conference title looks probable.