Reece Early grew tired of hearing it from his Gerstell Academy schoolmates.
The Falcons’ sports program has enjoyed its share of success, from boys soccer winning three Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association titles in as many seasons, to boys basketball defending its MIAA B Conference title this winter, to the girls teams joining the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland at the start of the school year. Early rose to become the baseball team’s standout, and spurred Gerstell on a playoff run in 2018 that turned a few heads.
The Falcons didn’t win a championship, though, which left Early wondering how things were going to play out during his senior season.
“We graduated five guys, and Reece was a little concerned,” Gerstell coach Cap Poklemba said. “He wanted to compete the way we’ve competed. He said, ‘Coach, are we going to be able to do that?’ I said, ‘We’re going to be all right.’ We’re going to need him to lead us … He did it all year.”
Early’s high school finale was one for his school’s record books. The senior guided Gerstell to its first MIAA title with his powerful right arm and a complete performance at the plate. Early led the Falcons past Boys’ Latin, which rode into the conference finals unbeaten in the playoffs, twice in two days to capture the championship en route to being named Times Baseball Player of the Year.
Early batted .417 (30-for-72) with five home runs, seven doubles, and 23 RBIs. From the mound, he went 5-2 with a 1.19 ERA and 95 strikeouts. Early also earned three saves for Gerstell, which posted a 17-7 record and overcame a slow start to the spring. The Falcons won six of their final seven games and capped the year with their sweep against Boys’ Latin in the championship.
Gerstell needed to beat the Lakers on May 20 in order to set up a final game the next day. Early came into that Monday matchup at Harford Community College rested and confident, he said.
“I locked in and I just got into my rhythm,” Early said. “I just focused, tuned everything out. I tuned out the crowd. Just me and the batter, and Chris [Hagan] behind the plate.”
Hagan, Gerstell’s all-county catcher, didn’t need to motivate his pitcher too much — Early tossed seven innings and struck out 12 in a 6-3 victory. He also homered in the win.
Boys’ Latin, winners of three straight MIAA titles, still had a chance to capture the B Conference title the next day. But Gerstell’s momentum proved to be the difference-maker, and when the Falcons entered the seventh inning with a two-run lead, Poklemba had a plan already in place.
Boys’ Latin had the winning run at the plate with two outs. Early, who played third base rather than his usual outfield position, and took more than a handful of hard grounders in that Tuesday game, wasn’t too far from the mound.
“I told him, ‘I’m pitching. If you need me, I’m the guy,’” Early said about his coach. Poklemba wasn’t about to let the moment disappear.
“He didn’t really want to make the choice; I wasn’t going to let him make the choice anyway,” Poklemba said. “I’m putting the ball in my guy’s hand. I said, ‘Get in there and throw me three fastballs, and let’s go home with a championship.’”
And they did. Early needed five pitches to record the final out, a strikeout, and Gerstell won 6-4.
Early said Gerstell’s season solidified in late March, when the Falcons lost to Mount Carmel 5-1 and the players — the Falcons started five and sometimes six freshmen at times this spring — realized they needed to take things seriously if they were to contend. Gerstell reeled off six wins in seven games, just like it finished the season, and turned things around.
Gerstell played Boys' Latin in the MIAA B Conference baseball finals May 21, 2019 at Harford Community College.
By Mike Frainie
May 21, 2019 | 8:00 PM
Beating Boys’ Latin for the first time in school history was a boost, Early said, but the second victory one day later put a stamp on things. The preseason all-state pick and Brooks Robinson All-Star Game participant got to celebrate the baseball team’s elusive title.
“People have been asking, ‘When are you guys going to win a championship?’” Early said. “They’ve asked that the last four years, and it’s finally nice to have everyone on your back. The whole community is around you and supporting you [the whole] way. It’s incredible.”
Early isn’t finished with baseball, but his next step is a big one. In two weeks he’s set to arrive in Annapolis for the U.S. Naval Academy’s “Plebe Summer,” the seven-week training program required for all incoming freshmen. Early said Navy will be a “change of scenery” for him since he has been at Gerstell since he started grade school.
He’s going to take each day in stride, he said, in tackling Plebe Summer and staying in shape for Midshipmen baseball. Gerstell had a pretty good idea what type of person Navy is getting.
“As proud as I am of him, what he did here on this mound, what he did in the MIAA, and what he did in the Brooks Robinson All-Star Game … I’m most proud to know that he’s going to be serving our country,” Poklemba said. “I’m really, really proud that he made that decision. It’s going to be great baseball for him, but in the grand scheme of things, baseball ends for all of us at some point. And he’s going to have a great opportunity.”