Each spring, as baseball diamonds around Howard County thaw out, hope is renewed that a local public school team will return to Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen for the state championship game. But each spring for the last five years, Howard County has come up empty-handed in late May.
This spring, with talent spread deep throughout the area, Howard County baseball enters the season confident and hungry to be playing past graduation.
"Out of all the counties, I think we have the most talent," said Atholton senior center fielder Brady Acker, a three-time all-county selection who will play for George Mason next year. "I'm surprised none of us have won it yet, but I feel like this could be the year."
Despite numerous accolades, including never being caught stealing in more than 60 attempts as a Raider, Acker has never played in a state tournament game. In fact, no current Howard County player has made it past the regional finals.
Atholton and Hammond both lost in the state semifinals in 2010, and River Hill was the last local team to end its season with a win in the state championship game, in 2009.
Only four Howard County programs have ever won a state title — Atholton (2002), Centennial (2001 and 2004), Glenelg (1983, 1993, 1995, 1998 and 1999) and River Hill (2009) — and Reservoir, one of the most dominant teams in Howard County over the past five years, has surprisingly never been past the regional championship game.
"It stinks when we've all got to beat each other up, I feel like we could all meet up" at Ripken Stadium, Gators coach Adam Leader said. "This year we have a strong county and it makes all of us coaches work that much harder to win the county. We have a good shot this year."
With two-time Howard County Pitcher of the Year, junior Cody Morris, back as the Gators ace, plus eight other returning starters, Reservoir is an early favorite to contend for a county title and play deep into May.
"We return every starter from last year and even add a transfer, Joe Kearney (from Mount St. Joseph) who will definitely start in the middle of the infield," Leader said. "We're happy about where we are, but we're focusing on what we didn't do last year, which was to score runs."
The Gators allowed only 87 runs in 23 games last year, but only scored 111. With junior third baseman Jack Barry and senior catcher Danny O'Hagan (Catholic University), both second team all-county selections, back to provide run support for Morris, who has already committed to pitch collegiately for the University of South Carolina, Reservoir looks like the total package.
"I'm excited to have that experience coming into the season, and I think it's like that around the county," Leader said. "You can't sleep on anybody. I don't expect to see an undefeated team halfway through the season."
With first-team all-county pitcher Michael Slayton leading the Raiders staff, and Acker setting the table on offense, Atholton certainly has the firepower to play a tight game with Reservoir.
"I think we have the pitching to do it, it's just a matter of the bats coming around, if we can all get on a streak at the same time," said Acker, whose team scored 141 runs last year, second most in the league. "I know if I can get on and maybe steal a base, the guys behind me can get me in."
Led by all-county shortstop Jake Bender (Rider University), Marriotts Ridge — which scored a league-best 179 runs last year — will be a contender as always. Oakland Mills had a breakout season last year, going 17-6 and outscoring opponents 124-48, but graduated a once-in-a-generation senior class, led by Player of the Year Joe Zayatz.
Both of Howard County's private schools, Chapelgate (C Conference) and Glenelg Country (B Conference), won MIAA Conference championships last year, and return the talent to make a strong run at a title defense this spring.
Glenelg Country defeated Chapelgate, 2-1, last week in a battle of champions to kick off the season. The public schools are slated to get going Friday, March 21, with five games: River Hill at Centennial, Mt. Hebron at Marriotts Ridge, Hammond at Howard, Long Reach at Glenelg and Oakland Mills at Atholton.
Check back here on Friday night for results, and follow @ACHoCoSports for updates all season.
Howard County welcomes three new coaches this season.
At Glenelg, Steve Ballance takes over for Dave Boteler after four seasons.
Ballance, who has been with the Glenelg varsity since 2012, has been coaching high school, college and youth baseball for 15 years. He was a four-time all-county selection for Sparrows Point High School, where he played catcher, pitcher, third base and shortstop and still holds 11 offensive records. He previously was on the staff of the 2004 Centennial High School state championship team and was named the 2009 Maryland Junior College Coach of the Year after leading Anne Arundel Community College to the state championship with a record 39 wins. He also coached at Archbishop Curley.
Ballance is now the co-founder and co-owner of Dig In Baseball in Gaithersburg. He has coached 27 players who have gone on to play professional baseball.
"This is an underdog type team which I believe can and will over-achieve," Ballance said of the Gladiators. "This is a tight-knit, hard working, disciplined team, which enjoys learning and practicing everyday."
Glenelg head football coach Butch Schaffer and former head baseball coach Tom Thrasher are among Ballance's assistants.
Boteler led the Gladiators to a 39-29 league record during his four-year tenure (52-39 overall) twice advancing to the 2A South regional championship.
At Oakland Mills, Brian Rau has stepped down after two successful seasons to become the Athletics and Activities Manager at Wilde Lake. Rau was 20-14 in two seasons (28-16 overall) after Oakland Mills went 4-17 in 2011.
Rau's successor, Matt Sillers, previously was the head coach at Hammond in 2011. Sillers, who pitched for St. Vincent Pallotti and Frostburg University, is a history teacher at Hammond High School.
"I'm excited about this group of players and about OM baseball," Sillers said. "My guys are dedicated and willing to work hard everyday on and off the field. Our senior leadership is outstanding and will help us throughout the year. My coaching staff and I look forward to the season."
Sillers' assistants include Johnny Jackson, a former standout pitcher at Cardinal Gibbons and Stevenson University.
At Chapelgate, Justin Riggin steps down after three seasons, including a C Conference championship last spring, to join the coaching staff at his alma mater, CCBC - Catonsville.
In his tenure, Riggin led the Yellowjackets to a 28-25 overall record (18-8 conference) with two consecutive finals appearances, including last year's championship.
Jeremy Story is Chapelgate's new head coach. Story, who has a son in the eighth grade at Chapelgate, is a software engineer from California, where he played high school baseball and one year at junior college. He was a travel baseball coach before taking on the Chapelgate post.
"It's a program that I hope to build and grow," Story said. "The team worked hard in the offseason."
Story's assistant, Matt Siggins, was a standout pitcher at Chapelgate from 2005 to 2008 before going on to pitch for Frederick Community College and UMBC.
AROUND THE HORN
A look at all 14 local teams heading into opening day.