The defining feature heading into the 2021 Howard County baseball season is that no one knows how it’s going to go.
Not only has the coronavirus pandemic led to a shortened 11-game schedule compared to the normal 18-game slate, but since the 2020 spring season was canceled due to the novel virus, experience is at a premium and the vast majority of players have never played a single inning of varsity baseball.
The uncertainty of the season, however, has rejuvenated some of the county’s players and coaches, who are mostly just excited to get back on the diamond again.
Other than playing four fewer county games, the regular season, which is scheduled to begin Friday and end the week of May 31, will feel similar to past seasons. All 12 county teams will face off against one another for 11 total games, and at the end of the campaign, a county champion will be crowned.
Despite the lack of experience and information, the county’s coaches think Glenelg, Howard, River Hill and Centennial will be the top teams in the league this season. The Lions won the title in 2019 after going 19-3 overall and 14-2 in county play.
The season is set to end by June 4 because there is still the potential for regional and state tournaments in June, but that will not be determined until a vote by the Maryland Superintendents of Schools on May 18.
Here’s a look at all 12 county teams ahead of Opening Day on Friday:
Coach: Scott Peddicord (second year)
2019 record: 12-4 county, 17-5 overall (3A East Region finalist)
Top players: Seniors Nick Varda (SS), Branden Brown (P/UT) and Tony D’Angeli (C); junior Jason Drucker (P/CF).
First pitch: The last time Atholton was on the diamond was in the 3A East Region championship against powerhouse J.M. Bennett. In 2019, the Raiders finished second in Howard County and won their first two playoff games over Mt. Hebron and Centennial by scores of 2-0. This season, the Raiders hope to have similar success with a roster that sports six seniors. Peddicord said his team’s biggest strength is its “versatility,” since several of Atholton’s best players can also pitch or play multiple positions.
Coach’s corner: “The biggest determinant will be execution. We have six seniors, and they will play a critical role in our success. There are some talented underclassmen that will be asked to fill major roles throughout the spring.” — head coach Scott Peddicord
Coach: Denis Ahearn (19th year)
2019 record: 9-7, 11-10
Top players: Seniors Chris Betler (SS), Jack Pistner (3B) and Connarie Steinbach (P).
First pitch: Centennial was one of the youngest teams in the county two years ago, which means the Eagles are one of the most experienced teams this season with a league-high five returning starters from the 2019 campaign. Betler and Pistner are the county’s only returning first-team All-County players from 2019, when Betler hit .463 with 17 runs batted in and nine stolen bases and Pistner hit .397 with 16 RBI, seven doubles and 12 walks. Ahearn is excited about his deep pitching staff — led by Steinbach — that has five arms who throw in the low-80s.
Coach’s corner: “We are lucky to have a strong senior class, and that definitely gives our team a solid foundation to build on. But in order for us to be successful, we are going to need several sophomores and freshmen to step up. Guys like Betler and Pistner are going to have to set the standard for all the new guys to live up to.” — head coach Denis Ahearn
Coach: Steve Tiffany (fourth year)
2019 record: 5-11, 7-13
Top players: Seniors Andrew Johnson (P/1B), Gavin Henley (C), Braeden Sumpter (1B/OF) and Harrison Hobdy (2B/P).
First pitch: In 2019, Glenelg started 0-8 before ending the season 7-5. The Gladiators hope to continue that momentum this season with a roster that sports six seniors. Tiffany said the key on offense for his team is to have “quality at-bats” against varsity high school pitching, which most of his hitters have never seen.
Coach’s corner: “Our biggest strength by far is our pitching. … Experience on the mound will be the factor for us this year, and I think it will be the X-factor in [Howard County] this year. The teams that can avoid walks and the big innings will be very tough to beat.” — head coach Steve Tiffany
Coach: Casey Medairy (ninth year)
2019 record: 2-14, 3-18
Top players: Seniors Anthony Cline (P/1B), Cal Hewitt (P/UT) and Chase Johnson (CF); junior Billy Liguori (C/3B).
First pitch: Hammond hopes to take the next step this season with six seniors on its roster. Liguori and Cline both have varsity playing experience as starters for the Golden Bears in 2019. As a sophomore, Cline hit .250 with eight RBI and four doubles for the Golden Bears. Medairy said defense is his team’s strength this season, as most of his starters can play multiple positions.
Coach’s corner: “We’ve been doing a lot of back to basics at practice. Our key is pitchers throwing strikes, and when we get guys on base, we have to get them in scoring position. It’s honestly all about the fundamentals.” — head coach Casey Medairy
Coach: Jason Grebe (first year)
2019 record: 14-2, 19-3 (county champion)
Top players: Seniors Ben Fader (P/OF), Cooper Haberern (P/MIF), Jake Keller (P/OF) and Nathan Dawes (P/OF).
First pitch: Howard is looking to continue its reign at the top of the Howard County standings coming off its 19-3 campaign in 2019. During that season, the Lions sported the best offense in the county (8.4 runs per game) and allowed the fewest runs per game at 2.4. The Lions have 13 returning players from last year’s squad that didn’t get to step on the field in game competition. Grebe said his team’s strengths are pitching and team speed.
Coach’s corner: “We have an older team with a lot of game experience. We don’t have a lot of home run power, but we have many line drive gap hitters with speed. Pitching is our greatest strength. We have seven returning senior pitchers.” — head coach Jason Grebe
Coach: Brian Wyman (fifth year)
2019 record: 4-12, 5-14
Top players: Seniors Chris Stanford (1B/2B), Cole Bosley (SS), Brandon Bartolotta (3B/P) and Tucker Freer (OF); sophomore J.P. Tennant (1B, P).
First pitch: Long Reach, led by its nine seniors, hopes to take a step up in the county this season. Bartolotta is one of the Lightning’s top returning starters. As a sophomore in 2019, the third baseman hit .314 with eight RBI and 10 walks. Wyman also has high hopes for Tennant, who is set to be the team’s ace and will hit in the middle of the order as a sophomore.
Coach’s corner: “We have eight healthy seniors, so experience should be a positive. That said, we have limited depth, and guys playing positions they aren’t used to. We are going to grind it out however we can.” — head coach Brian Wyman
Coach: Paul Eckert (16th year)
2019 record: 11-5, 14-6
Top players: Seniors Graham Houch (P) and Josh Rotter (C/1B/OF); juniors Brandon Lake (1B/P/OF) and Jordan Peguese (P/CF/IF).
First pitch: Marriotts Ridge has a good mix of older players and youth with seven seniors and four sophomores. However, Eckert said this season feels like starting a new program, which he’s familiar with since he was the Mustangs’ first coach when the school opened earlier this century. He said a key part of this season will be the “development” of the team’s younger players.
Coach’s corner: “I am hoping our seniors can provide some leadership in some spots and I am excited for them to be part of the team. I am very excited about our younger players. I think that our underclassmen have great potential.” — head coach Paul Eckert
Coach: Brian Culley (15th year)
2019 record: 11-4, 11-7
Top players: Senior Josh Barke (SS/P); juniors Sam Cohen (P/INF) and Cooper Baer (C/P).
First pitch: Mt. Hebron was one of the top teams in Howard County in 2019. Led by Player of the Year Magnus Dunn, who graduated in 2020, the Vikings opened the season 7-0 and finished fourth in the county. Hebron’s only returning starter from the 2019 season is Josh Barke, who Culley said is possibly the “best all-around player” in Howard County. Barke hit .320 with 17 RBI and one homer two years ago as a sophomore. A strength for Culley’s squad is versatility, as Barke and other top players like Cohen and Baer all pitch and play a position.
Coach’s corner: “Will the lack of experience we have hurt us? Or do they simply just not think about the inexperience part and play effectively? ... [Having] a consistent positive attitude and work ethic, pitching and grinding out at-bats [will be key].” — head coach Brian Culley
Coach: Matt Sillers (ninth year)
2019 record: 6-10, 9-12
Top players: Seniors Tyler Miles (P/1B), Cameron Canter (P/INF), Kiyon Pitts (OF), Andrew Kell (OF) and Chance Meadows (P/OF).
First pitch: Oakland Mills has two star players in Miles and Kell, both of whom are planning to play in college at Salisbury University. In 2019, Kell was a second-team All-County selection after hitting .358 with 11 RBI, eight stolen bases and one home run. The Scorpions plan on relying on their rotation, led by Miles, Canter and Meadows. Sillers said the key for his Scorpions is to quickly learn from their mistakes.
Coach’s corner: “Experience will be a factor in a positive way. We have some senior leaders that have played on varsity and will contribute to our success. We also have a lot of new faces that have been preparing for this opportunity and will give 100% day in and day out.” — head coach Matt Sillers
Coach: Adam Leader (19th year)
2019 record: 11-4, 13-5
Top players: Senior Johnny Welch (OF/P); juniors Ben Davis (C), Travis Thompson (P/1B), Nate Del Tufo (IF/P); sophomore Quinn Dean (IF/P).
First pitch: Reservoir finished third in the county two years ago. Welch, who Leader said is great at “leading by example,” is the Gators’ only starter back from the 2019 season. Leader also said that “bridging the gap” between JV and varsity is important for his team. Typically being a program with excellent pitchers, Reservoir will be led on the mound by Welch, Thompson, Del Tufo and Dean. In 2019, the Gators allowed only 3.1 runs per game, which ranked second in the county.
Coach’s corner: “[The key for us] is how quickly players can adjust to the speed of the game at the varsity level. We are teaching a lot so far and players are learning a ton. Our hope is that they can take what they are learning and show it in games.” — head coach Adam Leader
Coach: Wes McCoy (13th year)
2019 record: 7-8, 9-11
Top players: Senior Ehi Okojie (OF); junior Will Zatkowski (C); sophomores Demetre Koutras (SS), Riley Finkelston (2B) and Eje Okojie (OF).
First pitch: In 2019, River Hill had the second-best offense in the county with 8.2 runs a contest and eight games with 10-plus runs. Leading the Hawks’ lineup this season will be Zatkowski, Koutras, Finkelston and the Okojie brothers. However, in 2019, the Hawks allowed 6.9 runs per game, and McCoy said the key for his team this season is pitching and defense.
Coach’s corner: “The team is experienced in general through high-level summer teams, though no one has started an actual high school game. ... Defense will be [the key]. We have a very athletic team, especially up the middle.” — head coach Wes McCoy
Coach: Steve Fredrick (third year)
2019 record: 2-13, 5-16 (2A South Region finalist)
Top players: Seniors Sam Balthis (P/3B), Grant Gladden (CF/SS/P) and Matthew Parker (C).
First pitch: Wilde Lake is bringing back four starters from its Cinderella 2019 season, which is the second most in Howard County behind Centennial’s five. The Wildecats had the most improbable playoff run of any county team in 2019, winning more games in the postseason (three) than it did in the regular season (two). This year, senior captains Balthis, Gladden and Parker — all of whom started for Wilde Lake two years ago — hope to continue that success into their final high school season this year. Gladden was a second-team All-County selection as a sophomore, hitting .386 with seven doubles.
Coach’s corner: “Experience at the varsity level should be a positive factor for us this season. While we have quite a bit of experience returning from 2019, we’ll also be relying upon several ninth and 10th graders this season. How quickly our young players adapt and how well our returners lead the way will go a long way in determining our success.” — head coach Steve Frederick