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Howard ace Casey Crawford makes mark as Howard County baseball Player of the Year

Howard ace Casey Crawford makes mark as Howard County baseball Player of the Year
Howard ace, clean-up hitter Casey Crawford was the ultimate dual threat in 2016 en route to earning Howard County baseball Player of the Year honors. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

As the youngest of four boys, Casey Crawford knew growing up that he would have to do something pretty outstanding if he wanted to stand out athletically.

It's safe to say, though — after leading the Howard High School football team to the state finals as quarterback last fall and now earning Howard County Times/Columbia Flier baseball Player of the Year honors this spring — he's more than made his mark.

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"You don't see many guys who not only play two sports like Casey did, but who have as much success as he did," Howard baseball coach Nick Hoffner said.

Crawford was blessed with an athletic lineage. His parents met at Penn State, where his father had an offer to play football before a torn ACL, and his mother was on the soccer team.

He and his three older brothers grew up in Ellicott City, aside from a four-year stint in Germany in the mid-2000s for their father's job with the National Security Agency, and all of them played sports. As a youngster in Germany, Crawford grew to love schnitzel and the seeds of his passion for football and baseball were planted.

Alex, Tim, Sean and Casey were always throwing footballs, basketballs and baseballs around. Even when his older brothers were too tired to play with their kid brother, Casey found ways to improve his skills.

"I would go in the street no matter what season it was and throw the ball at the curb and pick up ground balls as they rolled back to me," he said. "I'd also go in the backyard and toss wiffle balls up to myself and hit for hours at a time."

By the time Crawford reached Howard, the years of preparation had turned him into a polished athlete, and he was on the fast track to becoming an integral part of the Lions' varsity football and baseball teams.

After dominating at the JV level for two years, Crawford showed what he was capable of as a junior. He showed promise as backup quarterback during the Lions' breakout football season, and then earned first-team all-county honors on the baseball diamond as the Lions' workhorse pitcher and clean-up hitter for a squad that won 15 games for the first time since 2007.

"After I realized the potential that I had, I was hoping that my senior year would be this successful," said Crawford, who added that he learned how to be a mature leader under Player of the Year Jimmy Cain last season. "Last year we had a really strong lineup and Jimmy was the leader of that team. I saw myself as taking over that spot coming into this year … (becoming Player of the Year) was actually my goal for this year."

Crawford's memorable senior year began with him leading the Lions football team to the county championship and the state finals at M&T Bank Stadium. That experience set the tone for baseball season.

"That gave me a lot of confidence. I felt like I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but I stepped up and started being a leader on both the football and baseball field, and tried to keep things light in the dugout. It's kind of like pitching: you just fall into a groove," said Crawford, who was 7-2 this season with a .60 ERA, both career bests.

Although the baseball team fell just short of its goal of a county championship, missing out on a chance to catch River Hill because of a rain-shortened regular season, there were plenty of highlights for Crawford and his team.

After battling for first place until the final day of the regular season, the Lions went on a successful playoff run, culminating with a win over rival Sherwood in the sectional finals. Sherwood had knocked Howard out of the playoffs each of the past two seasons, including an 8-1 loss last year when Crawford took the loss. But this time Crawford ensured a different result, pitching a complete-game shutout in a 5-0 win over the previously undefeated Warriors.

When he wasn't pitching, Crawford could play any infield position, and as the Lions' clean-up hitter, he posted career highs in batting average (.415) and RBIs (21).

Although Howard lost in the regional finals to Bel Air, Crawford's legacy was cemented. Now he turns his focus to college, where he will attend Bridgewater College next year to play baseball and study nutrition.

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Named to the all-county first team are:

Pitcher

Conner Atkins, Centennial. The senior left hander developed into an ace this spring thanks to a new approach honed under the guidance of assistant coach Brad Loveless.

"This was the year Conner finally learned to be a pitcher and not just someone who could throw hard," coach Denis Ahearn said. "He really polished all the aspects of his craft and paid special attention to the mental elements of commanding a game on the mound … there is a lot more to pitching than just trying to strike every guy out."

Rather than painting the corners, Atkins relied on his arsenal and his defense, pitching to contact to a 1.51 ERA over 37 innings. He struck out 37 batters — exactly one per inning — and yielded only seven walks and 25 hits. Atkins will pitch for the Community College of Baltimore County next spring.

Kieran Garner, River Hill. With a full high school season still ahead of him, Garner made big strides with his control this spring and garnered Pitcher of the Year honors. The tall right-hander has perhaps the most electric stuff in the league, and he used it to strike out 91 batters in 55 innings, almost 30 more than any other player in the league.

"He was great all season, but especially the second half," coach Wes McCoy said. "Over his last four starts he gave up only two earned runs in 24 innings and threw a perfect game. He was an ace at the top of the rotation."

Garner won five games and earned four saves, and he lowered his ERA from last year (3.90) by more than two and a half runs, to 1.27. He was also an outstanding batter, leading the Hawks in RBIs and ¿ hitting a grand slam during his perfect game. Garner has already committed to pitch for the University of Maryland after graduating next spring.

David Hutchison, Hammond. The veteran lefty came into this season as one of the most experienced pitchers in the league after starting on varsity since he was a freshman. Growing steadily in stature and presence on the mound each season, Hutchison ascended to the upper echelon of the league this spring. He struck out 62 batters in 52 innings and posted a 2.14 ERA.

Howard County sports reporters Monica D'Ippolito, Brent Kennedy and Tim Schwartz recap the week that was and the week ahead for Howard County high school athletics.

In the intro, Brent Kennedy sits down with Hammond baseball player David Hutchison to talk about the Golden Bears’ season so far, playoff expectations and what he’s seen from some of the other ball clubs around the county.

Tim Schwartz talks about the boys lacrosse playoff draws starting at the 8:13 mark; the pros and cons of the tiered scheduling on the playoff seedings; a big first-round match-ups between Glenelg and Marriotts Ridge; what to expect from the top teams – Mt. Hebron and River Hill – in the 3A/2A South Region; and Howard’s chances to make it out of the 4A/3A North Region for a third straight season.

Monica D’Ippolito discusses the girls lacrosse playoff draws starting at the 15:19 mark; who she expects to come out of the 3A/2A South Region featuring Marriotts Ridge, Glenelg and Mt. Hebron; and why Howard has another good chance to make it out of the 4A/3A North Region.

Brent Kennedy talks at the softball playoff seeds and goes over which teams got good draws at the 20:19 mark; if Mt. Hebron can stay hot and make it through the 3A East Region; what chance Howard has to end Sherwood’s long winning streak; and some breakout-player candidates – like Centennial’s Emily Allen – to keep an eye on.

Of the 38 hits he allowed all season, only three were for extra bases, and Hutchison earned five wins, including two complete-game shutouts.

Coach Casey Medairy called Hutchison a "natural leader on and off of the field." He will continue his career at the University at Albany, SUNY next year.

Blake James, Atholton. Playing on varsity as a lanky freshman and sophomore, James contributed as a starting pitcher on back-to-back county championship teams for the Raiders in 2013 and 2014. Over the last two seasons, James truly developed into an imposing ace with command of multiple pitches.

"As his coach, I not only value his talent on the pitcher's mound but also his leadership capabilities," coach Jon Dupski said. "This year especially, I have seen him grow into a mature, confident, and well-developed leader. The desire he has to improve his craft rubs off on the younger players and encourages them to reach their potential."

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This spring, James compiled career bests in wins (four), ERA (1.09) and strikeouts (52). He also pitched three complete-game shutouts, including a no-hitter. James leaves Atholton with 13 career wins and 135 strikeouts, and will pitch for LaSalle University next year.

Catcher

Luke Parker, River Hill. Opposing base runners attempted to steal second base at their own peril when Parker was behind the plate. The junior backstop erased 17 base runners on steal attempts or pickoff throws.

"His greatest strength is his aggressiveness defensively. He actively looks to attack base runners," said coach Wes McCoy, who added that Parker saved almost six full innings worth of outs. "That is an incredible number in a 20-game season that saves pitcher's innings and stops opposing team's momentum … he has turned himself into an all-around outstanding catcher."

Parker also batted .390 with 12 walks and 20 RBIs for the county-champion Hawks. McCoy said that Parker, who had never even caught a bullpen session prior to last season, is the most improved player he has had in eight years of coaching.

Infield

Derek Gold, River Hill. The Howard County golf tournament champion in the fall, Gold became this spring's baseball batting champion by using his polished swing to hit at a .469 clip (30-for-64). He also hit for power (eight doubles, one home run, 20 RBIs), ran the bases well (18 runs) and had a discerning eye at the plate (10 walks).

"He is the rock of the team. He does everything very well," coach Wes McCoy said. "His leadership is invaluable and he is one of those players that makes other players around him better."

Defensively, he committed just one error all season during the Hawks' county-championship run, and saved many more with his nimble picks at first base. He also pitched some high leverage innings, including eight scoreless in a decisive 13-inning win at Howard.

David Franko, Marriotts Ridge. The Mustangs suffered a major blow when Franko went down with a season-ending ankle injury and missed the playoff run to the regional finals. In only 32 at-bats prior to the injury, he batted .344 with a pair of doubles, and played outstanding defense at third base, committing only one error.

"David had a very strong year for us in the field and at the plate," coach Paul Eckert said. "You can't help but wonder how much further we could have gone this year if David had not suffered a season-ending ankle injury as our team really missed him."

DaVonn Griffin, Hammond. A speedy runner with a good glove and strong bat, Griffin was perhaps the most dynamic five-tool player in the league. He batted .417 with 10 extra-base hits (six doubles, three home runs, one triple) and eight RBIs, scored 23 runs and stole a league-best 20 bases.

But rather than just get by on his natural talents, Griffin went the extra mile to turn himself into an elite player. "His work ethic was off the charts," coach Casey Medairy said.

Griffin had eight multi-hit games this season and committed only two errors in 92 chances as a middle infielder. He stole 52 bases in his career at Hammond, and was caught only twice. After collecting 95 hits as a Golden Bear, he will play collegiately for James Madison University.

Josh Kulina, Long Reach. The Lightning senior shortstop had a breakout season this spring, going on a hot streak that propelled him to a .339 batting average with seven doubles, 17 stolen bases and 20 runs scored.

"Josh is a gamer. The kid is never fazed by the caliber of pitcher or if he's down in the count. He has great baseball instincts and was a major part of Long Reach's improvement over the past four seasons," coach Mike Repsher said. "He was a great leader for our program both on and off the field. A coach really couldn't ask for much more."

Kulina was also an effective pitcher, limiting opponents to a 2.33 ERA through 21 innings. He finishes his career at Long Reach as the all-time leader in stolen bases and games played, and will continue playing baseball at Chesapeake College.

Outfield

Chris Clyde, Oakland Mills. Coming into this season, Oakland Mills had lost 40 games in a row and opponents had good reason to expect a victory when playing the Scorpions. But Clyde, along with a revamped pitching staff, turned Oakland Mills into a dangerous team.

"Chris took his game to the next level this season. He hit the ball with power and consistency," coach Matt Sillers said. "Chris is the type of player who puts in work when nobody is watching, and that is what has taken him from average as a sophomore to all-county as a junior."

Clyde increased his batting average up to .391 this spring, and led the league with 11 doubles. He posted career highs with a triple, two home runs, 13 RBIs, seven walks and five stolen bases, leading the league with 14 extra base hits. He also had a powerful and accurate arm from center field, striking down five base runners at home plate, and was an outstanding shortstop when rotating into the infield.

Chris Morath, Marriotts Ridge. One of the best all-around hitters in the league over the past two years, Morath has racked up 48 hits since the beginning of the 2015 season.

"Chris was our most outstanding hitter," coach Paul Eckert said. "He is a legitimate five-tool player."

Morath finished with a .463 batting average this spring with six doubles, three home runs, 20 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, 10 walks and 17 runs scored, making him the Mustangs leader in virtually every offensive category. He was also an outstanding defensive outfielder, and plans to compete for a spot on the James Madison University team next spring.

Jack Schroeder, Mt. Hebron. A Player of the Year candidate, Schroeder has the skill set of a college player even though his senior year is still ahead of him.

"He thinks the game at an elite level and works extremely hard to be the best he can be. He's a five-tool player who keeps getting better, even though he's already the best player I've had a chance to coach," coach Brian Culley said. "He was the glue that held us together this year. The ultimate team-player, he was always willing to do what was best for the team."

Schroeder started at five different positions and played each like it was his strongest. When he wasn't anchoring the outfield, he was the Vikings' ace on the mound, where he won five games and struck out 52 batters in 43 innings, allowing only 20 hits and recording a .98 ERA. He also swung a hot bat, hitting .387 this spring with five extra base hits and 21 RBIs.

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Utility

Gunnar Barnard, Marriotts Ridge. The University of Maryland recruit is one of the best all-around players in the county, capable of taking over a game with his strong pitching arm or with his live bat.

"(He) hit the ball well for us and usually drew our toughest pitching opponents as our No. 1 pitcher," coach Paul Eckert said. "He helped us to a successful season both at the plate and on the mound."

Barnard batted .339 this spring, driving in 20 runs in the heart of the Mustangs order, and won five games on the mound, keeping opponents to a 1.96 ERA and striking out 37 batters.

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