If the 2012 Howard County baseball season picks up where it left off, then Atholton and Reservoir will be battling back and forth this spring.
Last April 15, Reservoir knocked off Atholton on a play at the plate. But a little more than a month later, Atholton avenged the loss at Reservoir in the regional semifinals, ending the Gators' perfect season.
Much has changed since then. Atholton graduated seven starters, including all-county first teamers Kory Britton, Paul Beers and Jon Thews, and retired its longtime coach, Kevin Kelly. Reservoir waved goodbye to T.J. Pipik, the Player of the Year who drove in 35 runs with 18 extra base hits last year and was 9-0 on the mound, along with four other senior starters.
Those aren't the only changes this spring. Starting this season, all bats used in high school baseball must be BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) approved. To put it simply, the new bats won't be as "live" as the old BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) bats.
Don't expect the game to revert to the dead ball era of the early 1900s though.
"I don't think the bats are going to play that much differently," said Centennial coach Denis Ahearn. "You do get fewer cheap hits. If you (jam) a guy it's not getting out of the infield."
Ahearn said that his former players who are now in college — the NCAA began using the BBCOR bats last season — have reported back to him that the lessened power is most noticeable in colder weather, which shouldn't be an issue this spring.
"Some coaches may try to go small ball more, that wouldn't shock me," Ahearn said. "But it's still a metal bat. It's different from a wooden bat."
After 21 seasons, Atholton coach Kevin Kelly has stepped down to watch his son, Sean, and daughter, Grace, play sports. Over two decades, Kelly led the Raiders to 284 wins, a 2002 state championship and five more appearances in the state final four.
"I feel really blessed over the years to have some of the great players that I've had," said Kelly, who has not ruled out returning to coaching as an assistant once his children graduate high school.
Kelly's successor, Jon Dupski, is a math teacher at Atholton. In 2004 he was named the Baltimore Metro Player of the Year after leading Centennial to a state championship. He played for four years at Towson as a lefthanded pitcher before becoming a JV coach at Atholton, earning Kelly's endorsement.
At Hammond, Mike Lerner returns to the head coaching position that he had for nine years before stepping down last season to spend time with his newborn son. In 2009 and 2010, Lerner coached Hammond to back-to-back county titles.
At Oakland Mills, Rod Clifford has stepped down after eight seasons with the Scorpions.
In 2006, Clifford led Oakland Mills to its first winning season in more than 15 years, finishing with a 13-9 record. His team won 32 games between 2006 and 2008.
Clifford's replacement, Brian Rau, teaches in Prince George's County. He is a 1994 graduate of Chancellor High School in Fredericksburg, Va., where he played baseball.
He played college ball at Longwood College and Frostburg State, and has coached at Spotsylvania (Va.) and High Point high schools. He is a U.S. Army veteran and was deployed to Bosnia and Iraq between 2001 and 2004.
Around the horn
Here is a look at all 14 county teams as the season begins.