Jason Gouge wasn’t thrilled with his Hampstead Red 13-14 team’s chances of success when he first saw them practice this spring.
In addition, nine of the 13 had never played on the diamonds with 80-foot base paths and 56-foot pitching mounds. They were only used to 60-or 65-foot base path diamonds used by 12-under players. One of his players in fact, had never even played baseball.
However, whether thrilled or not, he was looking at this year’s league Carroll County 13-14 Rec League champions. They would finish first with a 12-1 regular-season record and then sweep three playoff games for the title.
The kids grew on him as the spring’s practice progressed.
“Just before the season, I felt we would give (the championship) a shot," Gouge said. “I could see they were excited and happy to be at practice. Normally you don’t see kids happy to practice.”
“I told them I wanted them to have fun and play hard, although I knew they still had kinks to work out.”
The first game of the year was full of kinks; the Finksburg Nationals blasted Hampstead 16-4.
“The kids really got down on themselves afterwards; (the game) didn’t turn out the way they expected it to go. I started to hear excuses, and I don’t take excuses,” Gouge said.
But this was only one game. Gouge and assistant coaches Todd Steward and Richard Kitterman set out to iron out those kinks. One thing they did was put the aggressive hitters at the top of the lineup. Those hesitant to swing the bat moved to the bottom. They also put players in their strongest positions.
After that, their team never lost another game the rest of the year.
And those less aggressive hitters soon found the range. In fact, the hitting was the big thing that picked up as the season went on. Hampstead beat the Finksburg Orioles 7-6 in its second game and the four bottom hitters in the lineup carried things and sparked the whole team.
“The hitting was contagious," Gouge said. “When they started hitting the ball, they didn’t stop. They hit everything that was thrown up to them. I also tried to keep them in the positions they started at so they wouldn’t have to learn a new position.”
The rest of the regular season was easy sledding. Red won one game by two runs and another by three. The rest were blowouts with margins of seven runs or more.
Hampstead went 12-1 and finished first in the league’s regular season.
“The whole thing was fun. The players had a good time. The coaches had a good time. It was really nice seeing the players out there smiling and having fun,” Gouge said.
They would continue to have fun in the league playoffs, June 8-15 at the Hampstead Lions Club Park.
Game 1 was a 24-3 blowout of Reisterstown. Red put this one away early, scoring six runs in the first inning and nine more in the third. Thomas Blanton, Jacob Gouge, and Jake Bowersox each went 3-for-3, and Jamison Gouge was 3-for-4. Ben Dean was 2-for-2.
Matthew Rogers and Brandon Stacey each went 2-for-3, and Declan McGarry was 2-for-4. Joey Chirillo had a two-run triple and scored a run.
In the second playoff game, Hampstead got revenge on the Nationals who had clubbed it in the season opener. Red scored seven runs in the sixth inning to blow the game open and won 14-4.
Connor Neal was 2-for-2. Won Steward did a little bit of everything. He pitched two innings and, as the team’s top catcher, caught the rest of the game. At the plate he was 1-for-3 and had a walk. Tommy Kitterman walked three times and stole six bases for Hampstead.
The final game, which matched two teams from Hampstead, was a nail-biter.
Hampstead Red trailed Hampstead Blue 1-0 until the fourth inning when Jamison Gouge tripled in Blanton with the tying run. It then scored three runs in the home fifth to lead 4-1 with Bowersox, Kitterman, and Rogers crossing the plate. Ben Tokarski drove in one of the runs with a single.
Blue scored one more run in the seventh inning, but Red hung on to win 4-2. Jacob and Jamison Gouge, along with Steward, handled the pitching chores for the winners.
The championship was Gouge’s first in his 10 years of coaching in the Hampstead Lions baseball program.
“That was great. A lot of years with a lot of kids, and I finally got the monkey off my back,” he said.
But for now, he considers himself a former coach. This was his sons’ last year in the youth program, and this fall they move on to high school. So will dad, in a sense.
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“If they make their high school teams, I’ll be a spectator,” he said.