Eagles face ultimate road test Northeast packs its bags to seek title in foe's back yard


Having worked with Northeast coach Harry Lentz in several baseball camps over the years, Walkersville coach Paul Merrill anticipates "no surprises" from the 25-year veteran.

Defending Class 2A state champion Northeast brings a nine-game winning streak into tomorrow's 10 a.m. state championship game at Frederick's McCurdy Field.

But the Eagles (17-5) are facing a team and a situation unlike any they've encountered so far.

Forecasters say it's going to be 80 degrees. And the Eagles have a long ride to Frederick, while the the Lions (20-3) will be playing just eight miles from their home field.

"Last year, both us and Hammond had to get up early to get to the field, but this year, Walkersville will be in its own back yard," said Lentz, who has imposed a curfew for his players.

Merrill said, "There's no question that favors us. There'll be a lot of yelling and screaming in our favor, and I expect this to be a tense, roll-up-your-sleeves type, action-packed game."

Merrill's Lions, champions of the 10-team Monocacy Valley Athletic League, know how to keep opposing teams off balance and dictate the pace of a game, as indicated by their two errors-per-outing average and the school-record 1.45 combined ERA.

"Our pitching and defense has carried us. We've got four guys, with a three-man rotation," said Merrill, whose rotation has fanned 102 batters in 140 innings. "People have been putting the ball in play against us all year, and we expect the same thing from Northeast. We just have to play good defense to win."

With 77 career RBI -- including 35 this year -- Northeast catcher Rich Spiegel (.418, five home runs) is just four shy of the state record (81) established last year by former Eagle Don Shump.

"It's [the record] a goal, but if I don't get it, at least I came close," said Spiegel, who is nursing an eye injury after absorbing a grounder in Wednesday's practice. "Hopefully, [the injury] won't affect anything. I think the team is in a groove now, and our attitudes and hitting have really picked up."

Well, it's May, so it must be time for third baseman Chad O'Brien (.361, 13 RBI) to have a spectacular playoff outing.

As a junior on last year's 24-0 squad, O'Brien went 10-for-12 with nine RBI, including two triples, two doubles and a single in the four playoff games. He came on in Tuesday's 7-3 semifinal victory over J.M. Bennett (14-4), going 3-for-3 with a homer, a walk, two stolen bases and three runs scored.

"We know we're a totally different team from last year," said O'Brien, who went 3-for-4 with four RBI in last year's 15-3 state championship victory over Hammond.

"We feel we can win tight games, and this is business. It feels good right now," he said.

The Eagles also will need clutch efforts from senior second baseman K.C. Murphy (.402, 23 RBI), senior shortstop Joe Hoyer 19 RBI) and sophomore outfielder Jason Hohman (.396, 19 RBI).

"I think the entire team is starting to come around," said Murphy, who scored twice with two RBI in last year's championship game. "I think we're peaking at the right time, and we'll come through in the clutch."

Back on April 18, the Lions dropped a 2-1 decision to then unbeaten and nationally ranked Severna Park, with hurlers Shane Edwards (5-2), Chris Palmer (5-0) and Russ Windsor (6-1) combining to limit the hard-hitting Falcons to just three hits.

The Lions, whose only other losses came against Francis Scott Key, 4-0, and last year's state semifinalist Middletown, 5-3, also have Shawn DeWees (4-0), who picked up the win in the 3-2 state semifinal victory over Patapsco on Tuesday.

"We don't have the glamour players -- the [Charlie] Buckheits, the [Craig] Everetts, the [Rich] Spiegels," said Merrill, whose squad has just five seniors. "We're certainly not going to blow anyone away with our hitting."

Walkersville keeps games close primarily with sound fielding, while exploiting defenses with timely hits and aggressive base-running.

But Lentz -- who has amassed five different scouting reports on the Lions -- isn't underestimating the power of their bats.

And with good reason.

Seniors Palmer (.368, 29 RBI, two homers), Edwards (.431, 14 RBI), sophomore left fielder Tim Peterson (.436, 13 RBI) and junior third baseman Dana Shrodel (20 RBI) are all capable hitters.

"They play solid defense, but they also make very good contact," said Lentz, whose Eagles dropped a 7-2 decision to the Lions in the 1988 state semifinals.

Lentz hopes his Eagles have learned their lesson from one-run losses to Queen Anne's, 10-9, Severna Park, 5-4, and to Arundel and Old Mill -- each by 4-3.

"Walkersville likes to choke and poke, and bunt and run," said Lentz. "They like to go to the opposite field, so we expect to see a few shots to right-center."

Lentz said Wayne Hudson (6-1), a junior right-hander, should be well-rested after throwing more than 100 pitches against J.M. Bennett.

A left-handed batter, Hudson yielded two runs on six hits and four walks and raised his season total to 47 strikeouts with seven against the Clippers (14-4).

With hard-throwing junior Chris Kelly (5-1, 0.97 ERA), Derek Dolch (3-1, 5.25) and sophomore Jason Hohman (3-1, 4.1), the Eagles have plenty of depth for relief.

The Eagle defense has played best behind Kelly, who has 42 strikeouts in as many innings.

"We think Hudson's curve can give them trouble," said Lentz. "We also know they like to take running leads with no outs on second base, and we spent some time in practice defensing that."

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