Mike Marrale enjoyed an exhale several years in the making.
Century’s baseball coach gathered himself moments after huddling with his players, all of whom could barely contain their excitement upon capturing their program’s first regional title. Marrale, the Knights' sixth-year coach, has leaned on a core group of players that started playing together before they got to high school. Monday’s 14-9 victory over Walkersville in the Class 2A West Region final wasn’t Century’s ultimate goal, but the Knights sure felt good about their championship plaque.
“This is awesome, this is unbelivable. This is a dream come true,” Marrale said. “I’ve been waiting for this game for a long time, that’s for sure. And all the hard work that these boys have been putting in … man, this is sweet.”
Marrale breathed easier thanks to pitching performances from seniors Jeremy Lapp and Ethan Kiple — Lapp started and struck out nine batters in four innings; Kiple closed out the game with five more strikeouts over two innings of relief. Century (18-3) relied on its arms to navigate through the top of Walkersville’s lineup, particularly the duo of Jacob Wetzel and Christian Policelli.
The Lions’ Nos. 3-4 hitters were 6-for-6 with two home runs, two walks, a double, and seven RBIs between them. Lapp and Kiple held down Walkersville’s bottom five hitters, however — that bunch combined to go 1-for-18 with nine strikeouts.
“I was really comfortable,” Lapp said. “I tried to stick to what I knew pitching-wise, but their three and four hitters are big hitters and anywhere you throw it they’re going to hit it. Otherwise … felt good.”
Lapp and his fellow Century pitchers tend to be pretty loose when they take the mound because they know early deficits don’t stay that way for very long.
Walkersville (17-6) scored two in the first on Policelli’s homer to deep left, but the Knights answered when senior Ethan Kiple launched a three-run shot to right-center in the home half of the inning.
Walkersville grabbed a 5-4 lead in the third, this time keyed by a three-run blast to center from Wetzel. Century responded with three runs of its own in the inning, and Lapp provided the long ball with a three-run shot to right-center. The Lions attacked again in the fourth behind RBI hits from Brett Ahalt, Wetzel, and Policelli, and went ahead 8-7.
They had two runners on with one out, but Lapp ended the threat with back-to-back strikeouts.
“We had a lot of confidence in Jeremy and ‘E,’ and then we always have confidence in our hitting,” said senior shortstop Nathanael Hibbs. “We know we’re going to put the bat on the ball and drive it places. We were able to do both today, which helped us out a lot.”
Centuty took the lead for good in the fourth. Kiple laced an RBI single into left field, tying the score at 8-8, and later scored on a two-run error. Hibbs drove in two runs in the fifth inning on his second double of the game, and the Knights started counting defensive outs to clinch the regional crown.
Hibbs had three hits and scored four runs, senior catcher Michael Marrale doubled and scored three times, and Kiple drove in four with a pair of hits with three runs scored. Lapp added two hits and drove in five runs.
That balance, coupled with strong pitching, lifted Century to its first state tournament berth. The Knights are set to play Hereford on Tuesday night at 7 at Harford Community College. The winner heads to the state final, Saturday at 4 p.m. at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen.
Led by that core of veteran players — Hibbs, Kiple, Lapp, Michael Marrle, and Rob Martin, who is injured and unable to play — the Knights are two wins away from more important hardware.