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County balance should make for unpredictable 2018 baseball season

Regional realignment has shaken up the future Howard County baseball playoff picture.

For one, 3A East region finalist River Hill moved down to the 2A classification along with Glenelg, Wilde Lake and Hammond. They’ll join Marriotts Ridge, which has made the 2A West final the last two seasons, and Oakland Mills in 2A South, Section I. As for the other five county teams — Reservoir, Atholton, Mt. Hebron, Centennial and Long Reach — they’ll compete in Section I of the 3A East region after being scattered across both sections a year ago. Howard will remain in 4A North, where it won a region title in 2017.

These changes guarantee one county team — and only one team — from both 2A and 3A will make the regional championship.

“It makes sense at the state level,” River Hill coach Wes McCoy said. “It’s almost like a conference playoff. You take all the 2A schools, and we’re basically in a conference playoff, and who’s going to represent — amongst that classification — our county in the regional final.”

But entering the 2018 season, trying to pin down those future representatives is anyone’s guess. There are several teams, according to county coaches, that have the pieces to string together enough wins and make a deep postseason run.

And while the county race appears to have a few sure-fire contenders — at least on paper — the road to a league title will likely feature at least a few speed bumps.

“A lot of programs have gotten a lot stronger the past few years,” said Adam Leader, who is in his 16th season coaching at Reservoir. “It’s going to be one of those years where I’m not going to be surprised if people beat each other up the whole year. … In years past, you’ve got undefeated team, you’ve got teams with one loss. I think it very well could be a year where a team with a bunch of losses still wins this county.”

Howard was the last county team standing in 2017 after finishing 10-7 in league play and fourth in the county behind River Hill, Reservoir and county champion Marriotts Ridge. The Lions, a No. 2 seed in 4A North, Section II, crushed Springbrook, then held on to beat Sherwood, Dulaney and Severna Park to secure its first-ever state championship appearance.

The Lions fell short against Northwest in the title game, but coach Nick Hoffner saw his young team’s potential and hopes it can carry that over into this spring.

“We’ve got to do it again this year, and that’s something I’ve reemphasized to the guys,” Hoffner said. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, right now, we’re 0-0. We haven’t done anything yet this spring.’ We’re looking to do big things in the county because our goal is to win the county championship. I don’t know the last time Howard won the county championship in baseball.”

Howard may end up winning a lot of games this spring because of its pitching, which Hoffner says has a chance to be “one of the best in the area.” The staff is made of three juniors — Brendan Foster, Gabe Delgado and Ryan Kulick — who combined to pitch more than 55 percent of the team’s innings last season.

Foster is the ace, as he posted a gaudy 1.91 ERA and 42 strikeouts en route to making second-team All-County as a sophomore, but Hoffner has confidence in each of his returning arms and will also count on junior Jerry O’Neill to throw a bulk of the innings.

At the plate, the Lions welcome back Kulick, a first-team All-County outfielder, and second team All-County catcher Brian Jakubek to the middle of their batting order.

Challenging the Lions could be Marriotts Ridge, which after finishing in the top half of the county the past five years broke through and won the league title last season with a 14-2 mark. The Mustangs’ success continued in the postseason, where they reached the 2A West championship and finished 19-4 overall.

Senior second baseman Hunter Reeling returns, fresh off a first-team All-County season in which he hit .400 and stole 16 bases, as does junior Josh Olsufka. A year ago, the power-hitting third baseman tied for the county lead with three home runs and totaled 17 RBIs.

The main question mark with this team is its pitching. Marriotts Ridge will be without its left-handed ace, senior Dylan Anagnos, who suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow and will undergo Tommy John surgery later this spring. Without Anagnos, a preseason All-State selection who led the team in innings pitched (39.2) and the league in wins (seven), coach Paul Eckert is still in the process of figuring out his rotation.

The veteran coach named juniors Ryan Lee, Gavin Ross and TJ Delmonte as pitching options to go along with Olsufka.

“We graduated seven or eight seniors, a number of whom were pitchers, so our pitching is very inexperienced,” Eckert said. “I say it every year. The team that throws the ball and catches the ball best will most likely be the team that wins the most games. And that includes throwing the ball from the pitcher to the catcher.”

River Hill also lost a major piece of its pitching staff, as two-time Howard County Pitcher of the Year Kieran Garner has moved on to play collegiately at the University of Maryland. But the Hawks do bring back senior right-hander Josh Mann, a York College commit. Plus, coach Wes McCoy expects junior Robbie Windsor to shoulder a starting-rotation type workload of 40-plus innings after pitching about half of that last season.

Opposing pitchers, meanwhile, will again likely have a tough time retiring Tucker Finkelston, a first-team All-County selection at first base who led the county with 31 RBIs. And the n there’s senior center fielder Anthony Richards, who McCoy said is “an invaluable player” for the Hawks.

“We don’t have that fireball pitcher, that flamethrower like we have had in the past,” McCoy said. “But I think we make up for it by being able to put out a lot of arms that can all compete, and hopefully we’ll just be a well-balanced, solid, all-around team, and that should be a good recipe for success.”

Staying with the 2A classification, Glenelg will look to build on last season’s 10-7 county finish under first-year coach Steve Tiffany, a former Chapelgate and Marriotts Ridge assistant who most recently served as the head coach at Pallotti in Laurel. The Gladiators lost three All-County players — first-teamers Sean Kinloch (pitcher) and John McAuliffe (utility) and second-team selection Hunter Forsyth (shortstop) — but Tiffany has high hopes for the players he inherited.

They’re athletic, he said, and should be solid defensively, which bodes well for a squad with a lot of young arms. At the plate, then-sophomore Tad Henley finished second in the league with a .426 batting average a year ago.

Another underclassman who excelled last season was Oakland Mills outfielder/pitcher Ryan Looper, one of two sophomores to make first-team All-County after leading the Scorpions in nearly every pitching and hitting category. On the mound, his 0.82 ERA was the third-best in the county. He and his twin brother, first baseman/pitcher Ben Looper, will be two of the bigger contributors for a team coach Matt Siller said will lean on its leadership and experience.

Hammond is on the younger side, yet coach Casey Medairy has already seen a work ethic and defensive prowess that suggests the Golden Bears will show continual improvement throughout the year.

Wilde Lake also has a bunch of juniors but ones who started last season. Veteran coach Kareem Penn will rely on this group, as well as his three returning senior starters, to stay competitive this season.

Moving on to the 3A division, Reservoir seems to have a team capable of a deep state playoff run with 11 seniors back from a second-place county finish and 16-5 record overall. The Gators’ success starts with junior outfielder Cameron Hyder. He’s a four-year varsity player who will “lead by example,” Leader said. Hyder, a Salisbury University commit, confirmed that notion from the leadoff spot last spring, finishing near the top of the county in stolen bases (14) and runs scored (19).

Having graduated All-County pitchers Max Goron and Patrick Alexander, Leader will ride junior Trevor Romaine and senior Eric Jennings on the mound and use Hyder and sophomore EJ Sweet, among others, when necessary.

Leader said having so many upperclassmen will go a long way in helping the younger players make a smooth transition to the varsity level.

“It’s not one of those things that they have to see it work to happen,” Leader said. “They already know that it works, so whatever we do, they get it, and it’s not one of those ‘try and figure it out.’ They know that what we do works and just to stick with it.”

Atholton ended last season in the bottom half of the county and below .500 overall, but coaches believe the Raiders have the personnel to challenge for the league crown.

Coach Jon Dupski’s team has 15 returners, most notably senior shortstop and captain Jack Lawrence, pitchers Justin Reese and Jack Johnson and three-year catcher Zach Snow. In the outfield, seniors Connor McManus and Kevin Silverstein provide Atholton with even more varsity maturity. Dupski said pitching and fielding will be the strong suits for the Raiders, who have had a losing county record the past two seasons.

“You give John a good core of guys and he’s going to make them even better, and the guys coming in, he’s going to make them strong as well,” Leader said. “So he’s a good strong coach, so I think they’re going to be a good team this year. They battled a lot last year, and I think they have a lot of players back.”

Mt. Hebron and Centennial, after middling league finishes a year ago, will depend on its pitching depth to hopefully overcome the loss of their respective aces.

The Vikings lost a five-tool talent in 2017 Howard County Player of the Year Jack Schroeder, a lethal hitter who also mowed down opposing batters to the tune of a 1.09 ERA, five earned runs and 47 strikeouts in 32 innings. His absence hurts, but coach Brian Culley is confident in Schroeder’s successors on the hill. Culley still has second-team All-County utility player Lake Lloyd, a senior who will pitch and play third base, as well as senior pitchers Michael Mason, Noah D'Alonzo and Alex Bolton.

“Although we lack the proven commodity,” Culley said, “we have a bunch of capable arms that we are excited about.”

For the Eagles, senior ace, shortstop and No. 3 hitter Glenn Stratton will miss the season because of Tommy John surgery. A second-team All-County selection last season, Stratton allowed three earned runs in 22 innings of work, making him one of five county players to finish with a sub-one ERA. He also allowed just 11 hits while striking out 32.

Centennial will look to Alex Crocamo, Jake Carr and Jake Exart to replace that production.

Long Reach finished just ahead of the Eagles last season and have made “major improvements on defense,” according to second-year coach Brian Wyman. The Lightning have a new starting outfield of junior Kasim “K.J.” Jarrett and sophomore Alex King. In the infield, they return Jeremy Huffman, John Shupe and catcher Sam Haley.

Wyman said Huffman will serve as the team’s ace after closing last season.

In the private school ranks, Glenelg Country capped the 2017 campaign with a 10-4 record in the MIAA B Conference and made the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. The Dragons return six starters, including a conference All-Star in junior Tyler Russo (utility), and will rely on some key newcomers, coach Chris Garber said.

Garber added Russo and fellow juniors Marcus Khademi and Cole Sterry will anchor the middle of the batting order.

Chapelgate has a pair of MIAA C Conference All-Stars returning from a year ago. Catcher Dillon Story and Ryan Jordan, both seniors, will be tasked with leading a largely inexperienced group. The Yellowjackets return three starters from last season, when they finished 7-9 in league play and 8-11 overall.

Around the horn

A look at all 14 county teams entering the 2018 season:

*2017 first-team all-county; ^2017 second-team all-county

Atholton

2017 record: 7-10 county, 10-12 overall

Coach: Jon Dupski, seventh season

Key players: Seniors Jack Lawrence (SS/P), Connor McManus (OF), Justin Reese (P) and Kevin Silverstein (OF); juniors Jack Johnson (P) and Zach Snow (C).

Centennial

2017 record: 7-9, 7-11

Coach: Denis Ahearn, 17th season

Key Players: Seniors Jake Watson (C/2B), Alex Crocamo (P/LF) and Jake Carr (P/1B); juniors Jake Exart (P) and Philip Crispell (UTIL).

Glenelg

2017 record: 10-7, 13-9

Coach: Steve Tiffany, first season

Key players: Seniors Eddie Leimbach (C), Chris Reese (INF), Seth Taylor (3B) and Tyler Curtiss (INF); juniors ^Tad Henley (1B/P) and Hunter Koele (OF); sophomore Eddie Dello Russo (P/1B).

Hammond

2017 record: 6-10, 6-11

Coach: Casey Medairy, sixth season

Key Players: Senior Adam Johnson; junior Ramel Washington (INF/P); sophomores Brandon Eschman (INF/P) and Tim Stryker (P/1B).

Howard

2017 record: 10-7, 17-8 (4A state finalist)

Coach: Nick Hoffner, eighth season

Key Players: Senior Craig Wiley (SS); juniors *Ryan Kulick (UTIL/P), ^Brendan Foster (P/OF), ^Brian Jakubek (C/OF) Gabe Delgado (P/OF), Jerry O’Neill (P/INF) and Cameron Morris (2B); sophomore Alex Campbell (INF).

Long Reach

2017 record: 8-9, 9-11

Coach: Brian Wyman, second season

Key Players: Seniors Sam Haley (C), John Shupe (INF/P), Tyler Moore (INF/P) and Tavares Turner (INF/DH); juniors Jeremy Huffman (3B/P) and Kasim “K.J.” Jarrett (OF); sophomore Alex King (OF); freshman Cooper Haberern (1B/P).

Marriotts Ridge

2017 record: 14-2, 19-4 (county champion)

Coach: Paul Eckert, 13th season

Key players: Seniors Joey Fellona (C), *Hunter Reeling (2B) and *Dylan Anagnos (1B); juniors ^Josh Olsufka (INF/P) and Gavin Ross (UTIL).

Mt. Hebron

2017 record: 9-7, 11-10

Coach: Brian Culley, 12th season

Key players: Seniors Mark Lettieri (C/INF), ^Lake Lloyd (3B/P), Michael Mason (P/OF), Ryan Van Tine (UTIL), Noah D'Alonzo (P/INF) and Alex Bolton (P); sophomore Jimmy Jaecksch (P/OF).

Oakland Mills

2017 record: 4-13, 5-16

Coach: Matt Sillers, fifth season (sixth overall)

Key players: Seniors Danny Arnedo (P), Phil Carroll (3B/P) and Eric Barros (C); juniors *Ryan Looper (OF/P), Ben Looper (1B/P), Kyle Kirby (OF) and Ben Atkins (INF).

Reservoir

2017 record: 12-4, 16-5

Coach: Adam Leader, 16th season

Key Players: Seniors ^Cameron Hyder (OF/P), Kyle Chu (SS), Kevin Harrington (1B) and Eric Jennings (P/C); junior Trevor Romaine (2B/P); sophomore EJ Sweet (INF/P).

River Hill

2017 record: 11-4, 16-6

Coach: Wes McCoy, 10th season

Key Players: Seniors *Tucker Finkelston (1B/3B), Josh Mann (P) and Anthony Richards (OF); juniors Robby Windsor (P), Lucas Gitelman (OF) and Connor Coleman (C).

Wilde Lake

2017 record: 0-16, 0-19

Coach: Kareem Penn, eighth season

Key Players: Seniors Kevin Schroder (3B/1B/P), Daniel Yelin (OF/INF/P) and Aidan McGonigal (OF/P); juniors Matt Johnson (SS/3B/P), Nate Hicks (2B/SS/P), Will Zimmerman (UTIL) and Michael Arsenault (2B/SS/P).

Chapelgate

2017 record: 7-9 MIAA C Conference, 8-11

Coach: Jeremy Story, fifth season

Key Players: Seniors ^Dillon Story (C/INF) and Ryan Jordan (P/INF); sophomores Jackson Meyer (INF/P), Nate Morse (UTIL) and Luke McMillan (2B/SS/P); freshman Scooter Summa (INF/P).

Glenelg Country

2017 record: 10-4 MIAA B Conference, 11-9

Coach: Chris Garber, ninth season

Key Players: Seniors Alex Beglan (INF/P), Michael Diangelo (OF) and Michael Fagan (C/P); juniors ^Tyler Russo (P/1B/OF), Marcus Khademi (3B/1B/P) and Cole Sterry (INF).

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