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Atholton's Acker leads way as Howard County baseball Player of the Year

When Brady Acker first stepped onto the Atholton baseball field back in the spring of 2011, the family legacy had already been established within the program.

Chris Acker, Brady's only sibling, had just completed an excellent career for esteemed coach Kevin Kelly, garnering all-county honors twice, and leading the Raiders to a regional title.

So when the younger Acker was named the Raiders' varsity starting center fielder as a freshman, he was not only proud to be wearing the same uniform that he he watched his big brother play in, but also eager to blaze his own path on the baseball diamond.

"I probably got my start in baseball because of him. Ever since I was probably two years old I've been out on the baseball field," said Brady Acker, who has been named the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier baseball Player of the Year. "I started playing when I was four. He was definitely a factor in me playing baseball. I definitely look up to him as a role model ... Atholton's had a history of good baseball, and just to come in and follow in my brother's footsteps and, freshman year, being able to step in and have people recognize me as a good player was a great honor."

Acker lived up to the expectations immediately. Thrown into the crucible of starting for a traditional power as a ninth grader, Acker proved himself by batting .333 with 16 RBIs, 23 runs scored six extra base hits — including a home run — and 18 stolen bases without being caught; numbers that most players would aspire to after four years of experience at the varsity level.

Since then, Acker has only gotten better. As a sophomore, he improved in almost every offensive category, including stealing 21 bases in 21 attempts, and garnered first-team all-county honors, a position he would hold for the rest of his high school career.

But Acker said that he went through a change before his junior and senior seasons, when he not only wanted to lead the team statistically, but also as a role model himself.

As a freshman and sophomore "I would come out and try to have a little more fun with a little less pressure. I wasn't a captain, I was just following in the older guys' footsteps," Acker said. "Now I had to step up to be a leader."

The fleet-footed base stealer also decided to add a little more punch to his swing.

"I definitely got a lot stronger. I think I put on 45 pounds since freshman year," said Acker, who also played basketball for Atholton. "I was hitting a lot, I just needed to get my swing to more of a line drive, powerful swing… I wanted to step up and get a little more power in my body."

Indeed, Acker not only boosted his batting average by more than 100 points — to .478 as a junior — he also pounded out 10 extra base hits, including three home runs and two triples, while still managing to set career highs in runs scored (32) and stolen bases (22).

That prolific season netted Acker an offer to play collegiately for George Mason after graduation, and there was no senior slump.

In fact, Acker turned in his best season yet in 2014. Batting leadoff, he racked up 33 hits in 61 at bats for a scintillating .541 average. A result of his dangerous reputation and a well trained eye for the strike zone, he also drew a career-best 21 walks while striking out only three times in 82 plate appearances. And once on base — reaching at an astounding .659 clip — he was still a menace on the paths. Although he was caught stealing for the first two times in his career, he scored 36 runs — almost two per game — and added nine steals to reach 70 in his career.

"Everybody knew I was going to steal eventually. I had less stolen bases this year just because people were throwing over late in the count, so it just wasn't the right situation. It wasn't really upsetting that I got thrown out, it was kind of a relief that I had no more pressure," he said. "I think after I got thrown out, I stole more than I did at the beginning of the year."

His power stroke also continued to develop, as he cashed in 16 extra base hits — compared to his 17 singles — driving in 22 runs. He stranded only three base runners all season.

"He really took every at bat, every game, seriously," coach Jon Dupski said. "People fed off of his energy. He won ball games for us."

Acker did go into a mini-slump in late April, failing to record a hit in back-to-back wins over Long Reach and Hammond, but recovered to collect seven hits — including two home runs and a double — during the last five games of the season.

As always, Acker was outstanding defensively, committing just two errors in 40 attempts. He even pitched six innings to a 2.33 ERA.

His career totals of 113 hits (.423 career average), 115 runs, 57 RBIs, 25 doubles, five triples, nine home runs, 55 walks and 70 stolen bases in 72 attempts are astounding.

"You can't really replace a player like Brady … He's a phenomenal guy. I love working with him. Besides baseball attributes he has great character, dedication, he works really hard. He'll be successful," Dupski said. "It's going to be hard going into next year knowing that he's not there to solidify my No. 1 spot … He's picked up power. He's a five-tool player. He's very good. In my opinion he's the best player in Howard County, if not the best player in the state."

Acker was named the All-Metro baseball Player of the Year by the Baltimore Sun and was one of only two local players — along with Reservoir catcher Danny O'Hagan — to be selected to play in the prestigious Brooks Robinson High School All Star game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in mid June.

But after the game, as Acker talked about his future at George Mason and beyond, the discussion strayed briefly away from baseball.

Professional baseball "is definitely a realistic goal. I've been to a few free agent tryouts just to see where I would stand. I've talked to a few area scouts. I really think it's realistic. But I want to go to college and see if I still love the game after that, or maybe want to find something that I love even more as a career," he said. "I probably want to do criminal justice or business. I might want to follow my brother and do homeland security or maybe open my own business someday."

For now, though, Acker has at least three more years left of organized baseball, and he's perfectly happy with that immediate future.

"It was a great four years and it's upsetting that it's over, but I'm ready to go on to the next level," he said. "I just want to go into George Mason and have a good time, enjoy that I'm playing college baseball, and win a championship with my teammates."

Named to the all-county first team are:

Pitchers

Cody Morris, Reservoir junior. Selected by the coaches as the Howard County Pitcher of the Year for the third consectuive season, Morris converted his immense talent and command on the mound into a state championship this spring. The University of South Carolina-recruit was a true ace, finishing the season 8-1 with 89 strikeouts in 52 innings. He allowed only six earned runs this year, on 25 hits and 14 walks, for a .80 ERA.

Morris' three years totals now stand at 20 wins, 239 strikeouts and an ERA under one.

Though not quite as comfortable at the plate as on the mound, Morris batted .375 in the three-spot for the Gators, driving in 10 runs and crossing the plate 13 times. He also showed a discerning eye, drawing 15 walks.

"When Cody is on the mound you know you have a great chance at winning," coach Adam Leader said. "He worked really hard on the mental aspect of pitching this year and did an amazing job. He also brought his batting average up a great deal from last year. As our No. 3 hitter, he was able to put a lot of pressure on defenses. I can't say enough about the work and growth from him this year."

Morris' only loss this season was to county champion Atholton, 3-2, the day after spring break. In a 2-0 win over North Harford in the state championship game, he struck out 11 and walked two in a complete game two-hit shut out. He was also 2-for-3 at the plate in that game.

Michael Slayton, Atholton senior. The Raiders' ace took the mound for all the big games during Atholton's march to a second consecutive county championship.

He tossed two complete game shutouts this season, including a six-inning perfect game victory over Hammond, and went the distance in Atholton's 3-2 victory over eventual state champion Reservoir.

He finished the year 6-0, and allowed only nine earned runs on 32 hits and 11 walks in 42 innings pitched. Slayton was also adept at missing bats, racking up 41 strikeouts. A proficient hitter as well, Slayton batted .323 with 16 RBIs, 13 runs scored, three doubles, a triple and a home run in the clean-up spot for his best season at the plate.

"Any time he went on the mound, I knew we had a good chance of winning," coach Jon Dupski said. "He really stepped up as a senior. What surprised me most was his hitting. I did not expect him to be our No. 4 hitter coming into the season, but he proved me wrong."

In his career, Slayton won 14 games with an ERA just a shade over 2.00 and 99 strikeouts.

An excellent student as well, he plans to focus on his studies as an engineering major at Georgia Tech next year rather than continue his baseball career.

Mark Smith, Mt. Hebron junior. The gritty Vikings' starter got into his share of jams, but had the arm and the calm demeanor to get out of them. Smith was on the mound for 55 innings this spring, more than any other pitcher in the county. He walked 35 batters and hit 13 more, but gave up only 35 hits and held opposing batters to a .172 batting average, using 67 strikeouts to limit the damage to only 18 earned runs (2.29 ERA). Smith finished the season with a 6-3 record, and contributed two doubles and nine RBIs to the offense.

Still only a junior, Smith increased his workload by more than 30 innings this spring, lowered his ERA by almost half a run, won three more games, and struck out 50 more batters. His signature performance was a complete game one-hitter in a 2-1 victory over rival Marriotts Ridge.

"His confidence in all his pitches is what makes him special. He believes he can throw a strike with any pitch at any time and has the guts to throw those pitches in odd counts to keep the batters off balance," coach Brian Culley said. "He loves pitching and gained a ton of experience in big games this year. His one hitter against Ridge was masterful. He has a high ceiling. He went from essentially an average varsity pitcher to first team all-county in one year. If he can improve anywhere near that rate this year, watch out."

Catcher

Danny O'Hagan, Reservoir senior. On a junior-laden roster, O'Hagan was the unquestioned leader atop the line-up and behind the plate for the state champion Gators. The senior guided perhaps the state's best pitching staff to a team-ERA of less than 1.50, allowing only 29 earned runs in 146 innings. He also caught 13 of the 19 players that attempted to steal a base against Reservoir.

He also got everything started on Reservoir's prolific offense that averaged almost nine runs per game. O'Hagan finished the year batting .492 with 29 runs, 22 RBIs, eight doubles, a triple, a home run, 15 walks and 14 stolen bases. He was top-five in the county in hits (33, 2nd), runs (2nd), RBIs (4th), doubles (4th), walks (5th) and stolen bases (1st). He more than doubled his walk and RBI totals from a year ago, and also set career highs in hits and runs scored.

In three years as Reservoir's starting catcher, O'Hagan batted .379 with 77 hits, 72 runs, 37 RBIs, 20 doubles, four triples, two home runs and 41 stolen bases.

"Danny has gotten better every season," coach Adam Leader said. "He is like a coach on the field. He controls the game and pushes his teammates to improve every day. Danny will be missed."

O'Hagan was one of only two players to represent Howard County in the prestigious Brooks Robinson High School All-Star game, along with Acker, and will play for Catholic University next year.

First base

James Cain, Howard junior. A standout on the JV last year, Cain dedicated his offseason to honing his skills, and that effort allowed him to elevate all the way to the top of the varsity ranks. The junior led the Lions in hits (27) and average (.422), tied for the team lead in RBIs (14), and was second in runs (15) and doubles (four). In 70 plate appearances, he struck out only three times.

Cain was also his team's most durable pitcher, tossing 34 innings with a 3.29 ERA and team-high 48 strikeouts to win three games. When he wasn't on the mound, Cain was defensively reliable at all four infield positions.

"Jimmy's hard work in the summer, fall and winter really showed this spring," coach Nick Hoffner said. "Jimmy was extremely versatile … What he does really well is he drives the ball to all fields and consistently squares up the baseball. You do not see a lot of high school hitters who can hit and drive the ball to all fields."

Second base

Joey Janush, Reservoir junior. One of the unsung heroes of Reservoir's first state championship team, Janush provided punch at the bottom of the line-up, improving on an already strong sophomore campaign. Far from a light-hitting second baseman, he batted .383 with eight RBIs. He had a discerning eye at the plate, drawing 15 walks to extend innings and turn the line-up over. Once on base, Janush used his speed to create scoring opportunities, stealing 12 bases and scoring 15 runs.

Also a skilled receiver on the football field, Janush used his quickness and soft hands to play top-notch defense.

"Joey's range in the infield has improved so much and was a major factor throughout our season. Being able to range into the holes really helped keep runners off the bases," coach Adam Leader said. "Joey also came up big at the plate … He can hit the ball to all fields and helped our running game as well."

Third base

Jack Barry, Reservoir junior. One of the most feared hitters in the region, Barry lived up to his reputation, batting .442 (23-for-52), with 22 RBIs, three doubles, two triples and two home runs. Barry was a well-rounded offensive weapon, drawing 15 walks, stealing ten bases and scoring 21 runs.

He was also a keystone in the Gators' pitching rotation, finishing the campaign 8-0 with a 1.84 ERA, striking out 33 with only seven walks and 26 hits in 38 innings.

In a state semifinal win over Thomas Johnson, Barry homered and hit a broken bat single with an aluminum bat.

"Jack worked so hard before the 2014 season and his work really paid off. Whether playing third, pitching or hitting Jack excelled at them all," coach Adam Leader said. "Jack really proved to be one of the best players in Maryland. I can't wait to see what he does next year."

Shortstop

Jake Bender, Marriotts Ridge senior. The two-time first team all-county selection has not only been a three-year starter for the Mustangs, he's been one of the most productive players in the area in that time.

Bender set career highs in batting average (.424) and stolen bases (11) this spring, and also contributed 24 runs, 13 RBIs, five doubles, three triples and 10 walks. He struck out only twice in 59 at bats, and finishes his career with 75 hits, 68 runs, 39 RBIs, 15 doubles, six triples and a .369 batting average. He will continue his baseball career at Rider University next year.

"He was a terrific leader for us in the classroom as well as on the field," coach Paul Eckert said. "Rider University will be getting not only a quality ball player, but a quality person in Jake Bender."

Daniel Sterenberg, Centennial senior. A mainstay in the middle of Centennial's infield over the past three seasons, Sterenberg developed into one of the most well rounded hitters in the county this spring.

The 2013 second-team all-county selection improved his batting average by more than 100 points (.351 to .464), drove in 10 more runs (4 to 14), crossed the plate eight more times (8 to 16), and roped five more doubles (3 to 8). He was also a proficient table-setter, drawing seven walks, getting hit by four pitches, and stealing five bases with a .552 on-base percentage.

"He was our most consistent hitter over the past two seasons," coach Denis Ahearn said. "He has a compact swing and squares the ball up well. He was hard worker and a great kid."

Sterenberg will play for the University of Pikeville in Kentucky next year.

Outfield

Tyler Morris, Centennial senior. A fringe varsity starter last season, Morris — also the starting quarterback for the Centennial football team — dedicated himself to improving in the offseason and became one of the best all-around baseball players in the county this spring.

He led the Eagles in batting average (.500, 26-for-52), runs (18), doubles (9) and on-base percentage (.581) and tied for the team lead in triples (1), RBIs (17) and stolen bases (7), while drawing six walks and getting hit by four pitches.

Morris "was a late-bloomer … He struggled mightily at the plate last year, but found a way to put that behind him and post phenomenal stats this year. Not only his swing, but his entire plate approach matured tremendously," coach Denis Ahearn said. "He didn't just hit for average but he had good power as well. Beyond that he is a true five-tool player who has speed, great fielding skills and a cannon to boot."

Cuinn Mullins, Wilde Lake junior. A member of the varsity since his freshman year, Mullins is on track to turn in one of the most prolific careers in recent Wilde Lake school history.

The junior set career highs in hits (23), runs (13), RBIs (8), triples (2) and walks (10), and also hit his first career home run, all while batting a career-best .479, doubling six times and stealing five bases.

He is a career .400 hitter, and is also a starting running back and linebacker for the Wildecats football team.

Nicknamed "Bam Bam" by his teammates for his long blonde hair and dedication to weight training, Mullins is a complete defensive outfielder, with good range and a strong throwing arm.

"What made this year special was that in the offseason he was able to work on his opposite field hitting," coach Kareem Penn said. "He's very patient at the plate. He can cover a lot of ground and he also has a great arm. He can throw the ball on a rope. He plays a lot of summer ball and travel ball. He's put in a lot of work in the weight room."

Jake Snyder, Mt. Hebron junior. A key piece to Mt. Hebron's 14-win season and trip to the regional championship game, the best may still be yet to come for Snyder, who suffered a late-season wrist injury but continued to play center field with a soft cast because he was such a defensive asset.

Despite missing the last five games of the regular season, Snyder exponentially improved on his career highs in hits (25), runs (16), RBIs (15), walks (8) and batting average (.431). Since starting in canter field as a sophomore, Snyder has improved his batting average by at least 150 points each season. The leadoff hitter also doubled, tripled and hit his first career home run this season.

"Jake is a great defensive player," coach Brian Culley said. "He's a quiet leader who is a hard worker and deserves all the good that comes his way … His desire and work ethic are astounding and he is an absolute pleasure to coach. I wish I had 16 Jake Snyders."

Utility

Paul Lutchenkov, Mt. Hebron senior. Arguably the best pure power hitter in the league throughout the past three seasons, Lutchenkov opened eyes by batting .514 with 10 extra base hits in limited action as a sophomore call-up, and has never endured an extended cold streak since then.

This spring he set career highs in hits (31, .419 AVG), runs (17), RBIs (27), doubles (11) and walks (8). He led the Vikings with two triples and two home runs for an incredible .703 slugging percentage. In three varsity seasons, Lutchenkov used his sweet swing to rack up 74 hits (.443 career average) and 47 RBIs on 31 extra base hits (19 doubles, seven triples and two home runs).

The senior's walk-off RBI base hit to push the Vikings past Centennial, 2-1, in the playoffs was a career defining moment.

"I have never coached a player that has as much raw power as he has," coach Brian Culley said. "It's a shame that he played his home games on a field that essentially has no fence, or he would have an impressive home run total for his career. He has been a permanent fixture in the middle of our lineup for three years now and is a proven run producer who will be dearly missed. He hit the ball all over the field and turned himself into one of the county's most feared hitters."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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