The Columbia Reds baseball program has made amazing progress -- and it looks like things can only get better.

Last year the program sponsored its first Senior Division team in the Baltimore Metro League,one of the best amateur leagues in the area.

The 18-and-under team struggled in the early going, losing 15 of its first 16 games, seven by one run.

But in the second half of the season it won 10 of 16 games and beat every team except the league champion Putty Hill, which is also the two-time defending National Amateur Baseball Federation champion.

The Junior Division, 16-and-under team played its second season and posted a 23-12 record, good forsecond place in the league and a trip to the Dizzy Dean World Seriesin Jasper, Ala. They lost two straight games, but one was by 3-2.

This year both those teams are back. A third Reds team has been added that will play in the Senior Division. It is called Reds No. 2, andis really a B team that will provide an opportunity for more county players to face good competition.

Reds No. 2 is composed mainly ofyounger players who need to develop or older players not quite good enough to make the No. 1 team.

Reds No. 2 is coached by Tom Showe,former Centennial High varsity coach.

What this all means is a major improvement in the county's baseball quality.

Once, county players either made the American Legion team or played on a team based outside the county. Now they have the Reds option.

The man who getsthe most credit for this improvement is John Lopez of Columbia, the major fund-raiser for uniforms and equipment. Lopez is head coach forthe Junior Reds, and his Brian pitches for Reds No. 1.

"He's beenreally great to us," Reds Senior Division coach Larry Thompson said.Lopez also is coaching the 15-16 team.

How will Reds No. 1 fare in its second Senior Division season?

The team looks loaded and is off to a 3-1 start. It also has played a suspended game with Putty Hill, in which it trails 7-6 in the last inning with a Reds runner on second base and one out.

The Reds opened their season last Monday by beating County Bank of Elkton 5-4 behind right-hander Jason Mills' complete-game effort. The former Atholton player, who is now attending East Carolina State, fanned nine.

Reds lead-off man Brian Schroeder (Liberty) stole two bases in that game, and he's had five hits innine at-bats so far.

Against Putty Hill the next day, catcher Bobby Caswell (Catonsville Community College, Atholton) homered and Chris Dodson (Mount Hebron) started for the Reds.

The Reds lost to Pikesville, 10-9, last Thursday. They had only nine players, as four county high school athletic banquets that night depleted the squad.

"We trailed 10-4 and came back, so that was encouraging," said Thompson.

Sunday, the Reds swept a double header from the Pressman Cardinals in Baltimore City, 7-2 and 9-4.

Mills pitched a one-hitter andfanned nine in the first game to earn his second victory. Justin Thomas (Centennial) and Andy Young (Oakland Mills) hit back-to-back triples to help produce three runs. Thomas pitched the second game and got the win.

"The highlight of that game was when Caswell ran over the Pressman catcher and knocked the ball loose to score," Thompson said.

Reds No. 1 has most of the county's top players, including shortstop Jeff Cyran, first baseman Jeff Lavis, and pitchers Joe Nestor and Mike Lerner -- all from Hammond High, county and regional champions this spring.

The Reds No. 1 team also has first-baseman Austin Groves (Centennial), who is hitting well.

Brian Dunn (Mt. St. Joe)is a top player who batted well for the Gaels this spring. At third base, he will be used as a closer on the mound. Infielders include Brian Van Deusen (Atholton), Matt Donovan ( Oakland Mills) and Charlie Gayle (Wilde Lake). Other outfielders are Ricky Miller (Glenelg) and Travis Williams (Oakland Mills). Kevin Nickey (Atholton) is a back-upcatcher.

The team recently added one of the area's top pitchers, Jerry Fischer (Southern), who throws in the high 80s.

June 19 the team leaves for a six-game trip to Denver.

Paul Donovan is again Thompson's assistant coach.

Several well-known players are assistant coaches on the other Reds teams. Matt Myers is helping Showe on Reds No. 2. Rob Finkill and A. J. Kehoe are helping Lopez coach the Junior Reds.

Reds No. 1 faces Putty Hill at home (Atholton High) tonight at 6. It would be another Reds milestone if the Columbia team notches its first win against the defending national champs.

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