It doesn't take Laurel first-year baseball coach Don Cleveland long to reel off the number of returning starters the Spartans had this season. It's as easy as 1-2-3.
They are sophomore ace pitcher Tyler Carmen, senior center fielder Trey Fortson and senior shortstop Lorenzo Young.
Cleveland would have liked to have more players back in the starting lineup, but he couldn't be happier with how those three and two other returning varsity players — senior outfielder Devario Paradise and junior second baseman Malik Mendez — who helped make his adjustment from Laurel assistant softball coach (2009-2012) to head baseball coach.
Cleveland replaced Bryan Harris, who now coaches baseball at Bowie High after six years on the job at Laurel.
"I saw the guys in the offseason working on their game before I got the job," Cleveland said. "It was nice when I got the job that these guys that were very dedicated. They made my transition from softball to baseball very easy. I really leaned on them as leaders."
Cleveland's impact on the Spartans has been dramatic.
He's focused on fundamentals since he has three sophomores (Carmen, third baseman Tiamieu Savage, right fielder Ashtin Brown) and a freshman (catcher Jarrett Leisher) in his starting lineup.
"Coach Cleveland has brought a lot to the team," Carmen said. "He knows what he is talking about. He's had a lot of drills that have helped us out."
The Spartans are confident they can better last year's 8-12 record.
So far this season, they are 3-2-1.
Laurel tied Bladensburg, 9-9, lost to Bowie, 10-4, and Wise, 3-0 and defeated Oxon Hill, 14-2, Northwestern, 10-9 and DuVal, 19-2.
"This team has a lot of potential," Carmen said. "I think we can make a deep run in the playoffs. The pitching and hitting are much better (than last year). We have a lot more depth."
Carmen returned to the team as the ace after going 2-4 with a 2.04 ERA in 2012.
He was strong against Wise on March 28, giving up only three hits and two earned runs, while striking out 14.
Carmen also went the distance against Northwestern 13 days later to earn the victory, giving up six hits, five earned runs and striking out 10.
Fortson works as the No. 2 starter. He picked up the win against Oxon Hill, yielding two earned runs in five innings while striking out seven.
He also shined versus DuVal, fanning eight in five innings while allowing two earned runs.
"Our top two pitchers have carried us," said Cleveland, who adds Young and Paradise as starting pitchers. "Tyler is only a sophomore, but he takes control on the mound. His leadership is amazing. And I am looking for Trey to match Tyler outing for outing."
The results from two games jump out to the Spartans. Laurel lost to Bowie and its old coach Harris on March 23 and rallied to beat Northwestern with two runs in the bottom of the seventh to prevail.
"Bowie is the gold standard in the league," Carmen said. "We always want to beat Bowie and there was a little bit of added incentive with coach Harris in the other dugout."
The Northwestern game standouts more to Carmen because of the comeback.
Young's bloop a single to center field scored Paradise and drove in Mendez with a sacrifice fly to right field to account for the Spartans last two runs.
"We never gave up and kept fighting," Carmen said. "It does say a lot about how our season could go. We are always going to be in the game."
Note: Leishear was taken to Laurel Regional Hospital after running into a metal gate at the edge of the Northwestern dugout while pursuing a foul ball in the fourth inning. Cleveland said that a cut on his chin required stitches and he had a concussion. "He will probably be out the rest of the year," the coach said. "It will be a while before he is cleared. He is having some bad days."