Reece Early started to turn heads in his freshman debut at the Naval Academy.
The Midshipmen dropped their first game of the 2020 season in the first of a three-game series against Georgetown this spring, but they won 14 straight before the remainder of the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Early, a Gerstell Academy graduate who was named Carroll County Times baseball Player of the Year last spring, played a big part. He earned three starts during his freshman campaign and finished with a 2-0 record. He tossed six scoreless innings over his final two appearances of the season and earned his first career win in a five-inning start in a 6-1 Navy victory over Coppin State on Feb. 19.
Early struck out eight batters, including back-to-back three-strikeout performances against UMass (March 1) and Mount St. Mary’s (March 10).
“As they emerge through their plebe year, they start to build a confidence that they can do this and they can be successful down the road,” Navy baseball coach Paul Kostacopoulos said. “I think that’s exactly what happened with Reece … he came right out of the chute in the fall and was very good for us.
“I think we came back second semester and we got off to a little bit of a slow start, which is not unusual, but he really started to get going.”
Early’s journey at Navy began with the infamous Plebe Summer, a period designed to turn civilians into midshipmen. It is no gentle easing into the military routine, as plebes complete rigorous exercises and tasks throughout the day for seven weeks to prepare them for life in the brigade.
His experience was quite a process, to say the least.
“It was a really tough time, physically and mentally,” Early said. “Leading into the academic year, it was a very stressful time and I just had to get my bearings. One thing I was looking forward to the most was getting to baseball season, especially in the fall. I looked forward to it every day.”
Early said he worked as hard as he could to prove that he could compete at the collegiate level, and it paid off in the early stages of the spring season.
“It’s a really good feeling to know that I can help contribute to how the team is doing,” Early said. “I didn’t want to be the aggressive one, asking why I’m not getting playing time, or thinking I should be starting … I faced adversity in the fall and spring but was able to overcome them and I’ve shown that I’m ready to start playing.
“I was put in the game, I did well, so I think I earned my coach’s trust that he can put me out there and not have to worry about me not doing my job and focus on what I can do for the team.”
At Gerstell, Early guided the Falcons to a 17-7 record and their first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association title in 2019. He helped the team defeat Boys’ Latin, which entered the conference finals unbeaten in the playoffs, twice in two days to capture the championship.
He concluded his senior season with a .417 batting average, five home runs, seven doubles, and 23 RBIs. He went 5-2 with a 1.19 ERA and 95 strikeouts from the mount and he also earned three saves for the Falcons, who won six of their final seven games of the season.
Despite his success with the bat, Kostacopoulos sees Early as just a pitcher — a good one, albeit.
“He’s certainly a pitcher and he was probably fitting as our fourth starter and that was when he was evolving … he would be right in the mix," Kostacopoulos said.
Early said he knew the Naval Academy would be the best choice for him to continue his academic and athletic career because of how well the academy prepares its students for the future. Students are officers-in-training as they prepare to become a Naval Officer in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps after graduation.
Graduates are usually commissioned as ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the Marine Corps, but a small number can also be cross-commissioned as officers in other U.S. military services.
Baseball eased his transition, but one of Early’s most memorable moments at Navy was attending the Army-Navy Game on Dec. 14, one of the most traditional rivalries in college football. The Midshipmen defeated Army 31-7, which snapped a three-game losing skid against the Black Knights.
“Our seniors were never there to see Navy beat Army so we were all together as a company and we got so hyped up together,” Early said. “Leading into the game, we were all so pumped up … it was incredible and the electricity going around with everybody was ecstatic.”