Joppatowne baseball coach Al Zelinski had a plan that began three years ago with a handful of sophomores.
Zelinski threw the youths into varsity competition.
"I kind of felt bad," Zelinski said, "because I had to rush them in when maybe they weren't quite ready."
Though they lost a lot of games that first year, they gained valuable experience -- a key element in Zelinski's plan. Zelinski .. thought that if he played them often, the young Mariners could turn into one of the best high school baseball teams he had ever coached.
That first year, the Mariners won only four games. Last year, they won 10. This year, they won 18 -- and the county and regional championships.
"This is the greatest season I've ever had," said Zelinski, the Harford County Sun's Boys Coach of the Year. "It's probably the most talented group of kids I've ever had, and they were good kids. They always gave you more than you asked for."
Zelinski, a native of north-central Pennsylvania, played baseball in high school. After graduating from Bloomsburg State College, he taught at Gen. John Stricker Middle School in Baltimore County and at Edgewood High before coming to Joppatowne 18 years ago.
He was assistant baseball coach for a year before taking over the head coaching reins in 1983.
This spring, Zelinski and assistant coach Rick Eney guided the Mariners to their first appearance in the state championship since 1977. Joppatowne fell to Brunswick, 5-1, in the title game.
To Zelinski, though, winning the county title was the sweeter prize.
"I've said all along that winning the county is harder than winning the states. When you play the Bel Airs, the C. Milton Wrights, the Fallstons -- we've got a quality league up here. It's not easy to win this league when you're a small school."
At the beginning of the season, nobody expected Joppatowne to run away with the title. Then, the Mariners won their first 12 league games.
"They never anticipated we could come up with three good pitchers," said Zelinski of his right-handed crew, Damon Davies, Sean Ward and Bill Pilkerton. "To win in the Harford County league you have to have three good pitchers when you're playing four games a week."
Davies finished with a 7-0 record and a 1.17 ERA. Pilkerton was 5-1 and Ward, 5-2.
At times during the season, Zelinski's biggest problem was deciding how to get all of his talented players into the game. Somehow, he kept everybody happy.
The Mariners seemed to have a different hero in each game.
"They were determined this year," said Zelinski. "Almost all of them played summer ball to become better players.