What could be more difficult than winning a game against the defending national champions?
Anne Arundel Community College's baseball team is about to find out.
Tuesday's 7-0 victory over Essex CC, last year's junior college national champion, moved the third-seeded Pioneers into today's opening round of the double-elimination Region XX Division I tournament.
Four teams, including Montgomery-Rockville, Allegany and Hagerstown, will vie for the chance to play in the nationals in Grand Junction, Colo.
Last spring, the Pioneers were eliminated by Essex in the regionals. They had split their first two games with the Knights this season, losing, 4-3, and rallying from a 6-0 deficit to win, 11-7, at Memorial Stadium.
"They sent us home last year, and this year we sent them home," said Anne Arundel coach Clayton Jacobson. "When we had a 6-0 lead Tuesday, we weren't the least bit relaxed. That's the way it is in tournament play. You don't stop bunting for hits or playing for runs. There are no safe leads."
Left-hander Jimmy Simms protected Tuesday's lead by throwing a two-hitter. He had started the previous two games against Essex, taking the loss in the first meeting and lasting just two innings of the second one.
"Jimmy Simms threw his best game of the year against a top club," Jacobson said. "If he can come in after having a little sinking spell in confidence and win the biggest game of the year for us, then that has a real positive effect on the rest of the guys."
Jacobson hopes that feeling carries over into today's 10 a.m. game against second-seeded Allegany at Essex. If the Pioneers (17-12) win, they'll take the field again tomorrow at 11 a.m. A loss would force them to play another game today at 4 p.m.
Anne Arundel has a victory over Allegany this season, but it didn't come easily. The Pioneers fell behind 10-0 before staging their biggest comeback of the year to win in extra innings, 11-10.
"If we've got a 10-run lead, we've got them right where we want them," Jacobson said, laughing.
The championship round begins Sunday at noon.
"If we play like we did [Tuesday], we should do real well," said pitching coach Larry Schillenberg. "We played an exceptional game, with good pitching and timely hitting. We'll just take them one game at a time. If we beat Allegany, that'll be a big boost."
Each team is guaranteed a minimum of three games. Someone emerging victorious from the loser's bracket would have to play five times, putting added strain on a pitching staff and giving a decided edge to the team with the most quality arms.
"If the second or third or fourth pitchers throw well, that can make the difference in the tournament," Jacobson said. "It's tough to predict. If you get a little hot and score some runs, which protects your pitching, you can use one strategy. If you play real tight games, then you have to use a little different strategy with replacing pitchers.
"If you throw somebody four or five innings Friday, they're only going to make one appearance in the tournament. If you play three, four or five games in three days, then the key becomes pitching depth. I think we have six good pitchers. If they throw up to their ability, we're probably as deep as anybody, maybe a little deeper."
Schillenberg said, "If we have to play five games, it's going to be tough for us. But if we go through and win three straight. . . ."
Simms (2-3, 3.68 ERA) has been the workhorse of the staff, but the earliest that he could pitch is Saturday, and only if the Pioneers are on the verge of elimination. Otherwise, Jacobson would like to save him for Sunday's final round.
"Jimmy can throw on three days' rest," Jacobson said. "He's a finesse pitcher; he spots well, he throws a good changeup, and sometimes those guys are better throwing when they're a little tired, instead of when they have too much rest."
Anne Arundel has a 4.05 ERA, led by Dave Ryder (4-0, 1.42). John Degen (4-4, 3.44), Mark Fearing (3-2, 4.54), Glenn Shiring (2-2, 5.18) and Sean Sesney (2-1, 6.75) round out the staff.
Offensively, the Pioneers have lifted their average to .269. Third baseman Eric Scott is batting .333 with eight doubles. First baseman Russ Curry has a .330 average, eight doubles, two home runs and 21 RBI.
Catcher Rich Spiegel (.283, three home runs, five doubles, 26 RBI) and center fielder Chris Durocher (.280, four doubles, 16 RBI) also have been productive.
"Our team average has risen about 35 points," Jacobson said. "We've been getting clutch hits more often, but we're still battling with having seven freshmen position players, so for them, all this tournament participation is a new experience at the college level. We have no idea how they're going to handle that."