'Death Valley' loses its luster at Arundel


At Arundel they call the baseball field Death Valley.

Considering the Wildcats have won an unprecedented six state titles (1976-77-81-87-91-93), one national title (1993), nine regional and 14 county titles while going 344-92 under Bernie Walter in 21 years (through '94), the diamond was aptly named.

Opponents were doomed upon arrival in Gambrills, thus the name Death Valley was more than appropriate -- until this season. Foes have been calling it Happy Valley in 1995.

Seventh-ranked Arundel is off to a 5-3 start with all three defeats at home, where for most of Walter's 22 years as head coach the Wildcats have been nearly invincible.

To date, Arundel has been beaten at home by Class 4A East Region front-runner and No. 2-ranked North County (7-0) by 5-3, (4-3) Chesapeake, 6-3 and by top-ranked (13-0) Calvert Hall, 14-8, in the Wildcats' Easter Tournament.

Used to reloading rather than rebuilding, Walter is fielding his most inexperienced team since 1989 (12-8). That club returned only five with playing experience off a team that was 9-11 in 1988.

Walter coached the first seven games in 1988, going 3-4 before a heart attack sidelined him for the rest of the season. It was only the second losing season in his tenure, the other his inaugural 7-11 campaign in 1974.

This year's team returned only two starters among just four seniors. Catcher Sean Fairbanks and shortstop Casey Trout, who played second base in 1994, are the two experienced seniors.

With 16 juniors and two sophomores having little or no playing time at all, it can actually be called a rebuilding year at Arundel.

As a result, Walter and his longtime third base coach Nick Jauschnegg are in an unfamiliar position. After eight games, they are searching for a winning lineup.

Coming into this season, the Wildcats had gone 79-14 (.849) since 1991 with two state titles, a state runner-up last year and four consecutive county titles. Such heights may not be a reality in '95, but don't tell that to Walter and Jauschnegg.

"We're very inexperienced, and it's going to take awhile to get the right people playing, but when we do, we will be there," said Jauschnegg.

When the season resumes Wednesday after spring break, the stretch run could be a beauty. Most county coaches count North County, with its formidable pitching duo of Mike Wooden (4-0) and Tweety Barton (3-0), as the only guaranteed playoff team.

After that, No. 8 Old Mill (7-2), Arundel (5-3), and a trio of 4-3 teams in No. 11 Severna Park, Chesapeake and Glen Burnie will battle it out for the last three berths.

None of the above is a surprise. The surprise might be a serious run down the stretch by Arundel.

"We got two well-pitched games this week," said Walter, referring to wins over Southern on Monday and South River Wednesday.

Sophomore right-hander Kurt Light fashioned a three-hitter to win at Harwood by 3-2 and junior lefty Andy Vermillion pitched a four-hitter in a 7-2 victory over South River.

Neither was available for Calvert Hall Thursday, but Walter was able to give four juniors some time on the hill with left-hander Ryan Fox a pleasant surprise. Fox, who is 6-foot-4 and just 160 pounds, struck out three in two scoreless innings.

"Ryan does everything for the team and has really worked hard to make himself a better pitcher," said Walter.

I saw Fox pitch during the summer for Tut O'Hara's Gambrills 15-year-old team and have to say that his velocity has improved dramatically since then.

"Ryan is one of those kids, who may never come close to his potential in high school, go off to college, grow to 6-8 and fill out to 225 pounds and become a pro prospect," said Walter. "He's got the right attitude and is the kind of kid that makes coaching worthwhile."

Griswold ponders Clemson

Severna Park outfielder Matt Griswold has received a letter of intent from the nation's No. 2-ranked Clemson Tigers and is considering a partial scholarship.

Griswold homered twice in front of Clemson coaches in a North Carolina tournament last fall while playing for the Oriolelanders.

It's a big decision for Griswold, who has received several other offers, because Clemson attracts so much talent. National powerhouses like Clemson stockpile blue-chippers and an athlete has to be on top of his game to make it there.

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