When Centennial seniors Alex Bechta and Austin Harclerode reflect on their freshman year, one game - more specifically, one play - instantly comes to mind.
The Eagles were ahead by a run in the top of the seventh inning of a regional semifinal playoff game against River Hill. With a runner on first and two out, a Hawks batter hit a hard shot that skipped down the left-field line.
Bechta, the left fielder, raced toward the ball, snagged it with his glove and hurled the ball to third base. Harclerode, in perfect position, caught the ball and tagged out the runner sliding into third, ending the game and sending Centennial to the regional championship.
The Eagles went on to win the state title and finish No. 1 in The Sun's rankings. "Freshman year was a dream come true," said Bechta, who added that he and Harclerode figured their next three years would be filled with similar success.
Their sophomore and junior seasons did not end happily, however, and the two standouts are determined to conclude their varsity careers the way they started.
The Eagles were favored to repeat as state champions in 2005, but the team finished a disappointing 14-7.
"We lost a lot of good players, didn't have that dominant pitcher and I felt like I had a bad season as a sophomore," Harclerode said. "I struggled with my hitting and had a lot of strikeouts."
Last year, Centennial rolled to 22 consecutive victories and the first undefeated regular season in Howard County history. The lone loss - to eventual Class 3A state champion James M. Bennett in the East regional final - was tough to swallow.
"We feel like we have tremendous talent, and we're working real hard," said Harclerode, who has signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Towson next year. "We're serious and not goofing around because we want to end the season on a win."
Bechta, a first-team All-County and second team All-Metro selection last season, hit .386 with six doubles, 28 runs, 19 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and a .488 on-base percentage.
A disciplined hitter, he routinely chips at balls around the plate until finding one perfectly suited to hit line drives. He uses his speed to cover a lot of ground in left field.
Bechta also blossomed as a dominant pitcher last year, going 7-0 with a 1.00 ERA and striking out 35 in 34 2/3 innings. The left-hander has solid command of his fastball, curveball and changeup.
"Alex has an extreme level of dedication to go along with his natural ability," Centennial coach Denis Ahearn said. "Whether it's practice or a game, there's no half-speed for him, and you never worry about a lack of hustle.
"He has a strong arm, but he pitches with skill. He changes speeds, hits his spots and is a true artist on the mound. In the outfield, he has a cannon for an arm and always comes through in clutch defensive situations. At the plate, he can hit for average, while, at the same time, turning on the ball and hitting for power."
Harclerode, disappointed with his sophomore campaign, spent hours in the batting cage over that summer and in the months leading up to last season.
He polished his swing while hitting with wood bats instead of the aluminum ones favored by high school players.
He also fielded ground balls on the concrete pavement to improve his skills as a third baseman.
"By using a wood bat, I had to hit the ball on the sweet spot and I got used to it," Harclerode said.
Also named first-team All-County and second-team All-Metro last year, Harclerode hit .353 with five home runs and 35 RBIs. He also appeared in seven games as a relief pitcher and did not give up an earned run.
"As a third baseman, Austin was very raw as a freshman, but you could see that he had a ton of potential," Ahearn said. "He's worked very hard to sharpen his skills."
In the role of closer, Harclerode surprised his coach with his poise and focus. "He throws hard, but he knows how to pitch," Ahearn said.
For Harclerode and Bechta, along with fellow seniors Owen Dresser and Matt Hines and junior Ben Winter, this season is not about lofty personal statistics or an impressive regular-season record. After the disappointment of the past two seasons, the players fully understand what it is going to take to get back to where they want to be.