The Bel Air Bobcats' path to this year's Class 3A state baseball title was not the easiest to navigate, but, inning by inning, they worked, got the hits they needed, came up with the strikeouts that got them out of jams and in the end came out as the Maryland champs.
"It never is easy, but what a ride this has been," Bel Air skipper John Swanson said after the Bobcats held on to beat North Hagerstown in the 3A semifinals, 7-5, earning themselves a berth in their first state title game since 1996. "We got to our destination, and every single one of these guys deserves it."
Swanson, who has been at the helm of the Bel Air program for 12 seasons, went on after getting a celebratory bucket of icy water dumped on him.
"I'm so proud of each and every one of my guys, all of them," he said. "We started working right on March 1st, and now we're here. We have 19 gamers on this team. Even if they're not on the field [physically], mentally, they're right in the game, and that's a tribute to our coaching staff. That's why we're here right now. Now, we just have to win one more game."
The Bobcats did just that, knocking off LaPlata in the 3A title matchup by a narrow score of 3-2. Bel Air's last state title, and only previous championship game appearance, came 1996, when the Bobcats beat Atholton by the same score, 3-2.
Before they could even think about the state finals and semifinals, the Bobcats first had to worry about escaping the 3A North regional tournament, which has been won four years running by Bel Air's Harford County rivals: C. Milton Wright, which won the 3A title in 2010; North Harford, which took back-to-back regional crowns, advancing to the finals last season and falling in the 2011 semifinals; and Fallston, which won the 3A North in 2009, then lost to Frederick in the state title game.
This year, with Fallston playing in the 2A East tournament, the Bobcats were stacked in the 3A North bracket with CMW, North Harford and Aberdeen. CMW was knocked out with a tough, 9-8 loss to Franklin in the second round, Aberdeen lost in the second round, 4-0, to Eastern Tech, leaving the North Harford Hawks, two-time defending regional champs, who the Bobcats had to square off with in the semifinals. Bel Air, trailing 4-3 in the fourth, came back to defeat the Hawks, 5-4.
"A lot of our wins this year, they really got my heart rate up," Swanson said after Bel Air had defeated Eastern Tech in the 3A North final. "It's kind of tough on the old heart to watch games like that, where it comes down to the wire, but, that's why we're out here. And, that's why I like this team so much. They've found ways to win, the whole season."
In the regular season, the Bobcats did not have it any easier, playing in the ultra-competitive Chesapeake (upper) Division of the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference. Of his team's chances at coming out on top of the pile in a division that included North Harford, C. Milton Wright, North Harford, Fallston and Patterson Mill, Swanson was cautious in his pre-season outlook. "We'll have to wait and see how the season unfolds," he said.
After going 3-3 against non-UCBAC teams to start the season, the Bobcats kicked off their division schedule with a 3-2 win over North East, then came out with a win in one of the biggest slugfests of the year, beating CMW, 18-10.
The Bobcats beat Fallston and North Harford by scores of 9-8 and 2-0, respectively, then topped Rising Sun, 2-1, to run up a 5-0 division record. Then, things got complicated, as Bel Air dropped back-to-back, one-run games to Patterson Mill, 6-5, and North East, 9-8.
Another loss might have put them out of the running, but the Bobcats closed out their division schedule with a string of five straight wins, the highlight of which was a 1-0 victory over North Harford in the penultimate game of the regular season. Over three games with the Hawks in 2013, the Bobcats won three times by a grand total of four runs.
In the UCBAC title game with Susquehanna (lower) Division winner Bo Manor, the Bobcats came back from a 3-0 deficit to win, 8-3, and with the victory grabbed their first conference crown since the UCBAC's inaugural season in 2003-04.
After his team hoisted the UCBAC title plaque, Bel Air shortstop Matt Wallace, who sparked the comeback with a two-RBI double, summed up the Bobcats' outlook on being behind in the score.
"That's how it's been all season for us," Wallace said. "It's not 'if' the [runs] are going to come, but 'when' they're going to come."