In the two years since Eastern Tech won the Class 2A state baseball championship, Ryan Rivers' baby face doesn't appear to be any closer to having a razor take any hair off it now than then.
But there's a lot of maturity in Rivers' game, and his breadth of experience may go a long way toward helping the Mavericks win a second title in three years when they face Middletown tomorrow afternoon at Ripken Stadium.
The fact that you can now call Rivers a pitcher rather than a thrower is a reflection of how far he has come as a player and a person.
"I definitely feel like this year I've become more of a leader on the team than I was back then," said Rivers, who ran his season record to 7-0 with Eastern Tech's 6-3 semifinal win Tuesday over Parkside.
"I feel like more people look up to me and kind of look to me as a leader to try to help us get through this. I know that if I quit, the rest of the team is going to quit. I've got to be there for the team."
If Rivers were any more there for the Mavericks, he'd be stitching names on the backs of their orange-and-black uniforms.
As it is, the 6-foot-5 senior right-hander has given up only four runs in Eastern Tech's playoff run. He struck out 13 Parkside batters Tuesday while allowing six hits.
For the season, Rivers has 56 strikeouts with six walks, while giving up 29 hits in 47 innings. Before Tuesday's game, his ERA was 0.53.
Rivers, who played on the Mavericks' varsity team as a freshman, was known as purely a power pitcher as an underclassman. A professional scout watching Tuesday's game clocked him around 90 mph late in the contest.
But Rivers, who plays fall baseball with the Oriolelanders amateur club, began to add off-speed stuff last year and now has a solid curve and a sharp changeup in his repertoire, though it took time for him to get the fine points of the changeup just right.
"It was more the release point," he said. "I was letting it go out three-quarters and that affected my control. The release point had a lot to do with my control. I couldn't put it where I wanted it or I'd leave it in the middle of the plate and it would end up getting hit and I stopped doing it. Now I've got it to where I can keep it down in the strike zone and it's pretty effective."
Rivers' performance in the Parkside third inning provided proof of his maturation. With one out, he hit a batter, then surrendered a bloop single to left, putting runners at first and second. Rather than panic, Rivers calmly struck out Jeff Malcom looking with a changeup, then, after a double steal, threw a fastball past Brian Green to end the threat.
Rivers' composure this season is, in a sense, a residual benefit of 2005, when a senior-laden team, led by pitcher Gerard Sokolis, showed him how to lead.
"He was very lucky in that that group ... the seniors of '05 were just a fantastic group," Eastern Tech coach Spike McElfish said. "They shielded him. By the time he was a sophomore, he was one of the team leaders. It's a freak thing to have a freshman play varsity baseball and starting. I give all the credit to those guys who really took good care of him as a freshman, so that by the time, he was a sophomore, he was like a junior or senior."
Rivers, who plays third when he's not pitching, has become a better hitter as well as he started wearing contact lenses this season. He sees off-speed pitches better now at the plate, he said.
Rivers, a second-team All-Metro selection last year, has added nearly 200 points to his 2006 batting average, boosting it to .554, and leads the Mavericks in home runs with four. Rivers' hitting is so good that coaches at North Carolina-Charlotte, where he will play next year, want him to play first when he's not pitching.
Of course, the 49ers will have to wait until tomorrow, when Rivers tries one last time to recapture the joy of two years ago.
"I just remember the whole atmosphere [of the 2005 team] and being around the older guys," he said. "It was really special, just having all the other teammates with me to enjoy it with. That was great."
A win tomorrow, no doubt, would be, too.