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As icons retire, new coaches change up local baseball landscape

Following more than three decades on the Mount St. Joseph bench, Dave Norton this season is facing a new challenge — one that could prove the most daunting of his professional career.

Trying to stay away.

After taking the reigns as principal of the Irvington school last year, Norton in August officially stepped down as head baseball coach following 31 seasons. Now, he is vowing to do whatever it takes to aid the Gaels in their transition to new coach Jody Harris, his longtime assistant.

Most notably, that means keeping his distance.

“I'm not going to interfere,” said Norton, who is still called “coach” by most players. “But will I go down and help the freshmen a little bit and do a couple little minicamps? Absolutely. That's a teaching thing. But as far as going down and sitting on the bench, it's Jody's team, not my team.”

As the snow thaws and the fields dry this spring, two of the metro area's most historically stable baseball programs, Mount St. Joseph and South River, are each dealing with new head coaches for the first time since before the Orioles last captured a World Series title.

At the Anne Arundel County school, former assistant Gary Gubbings has taken over for Ken Dunn, who closed out 35 years of coaching last season by guiding his team to its first-ever Class 4A state championship.

It marks the third head coaching stint for Gubbings, who played college ball at Slippery Rock in the late 1980s before leading teams for eight years at Southern and two at Broadneck. He said he's ready for the challenge of replacing an icon.

“Baseball is baseball, and we're not going to reinvent the wheel,” said Gubbings, who spent the past six years as the team's pitching coach. “Some things will be done a little bit differently, but catching, throwing, hitting the baseball and playing defense better than the other team … that's kind of what it comes down to.”

He will have the added challenge of replacing seven starters, though some see that as a positive.

“If there's a year to make that change … I think it's this year,” Seahawks top pitcher Craig Sheridan said. “I might have been worried about [the change] had we had the same team, but since we actually graduated so many players — there's really only two players who played for coach Dunn for multiple years — it's pretty much a brand new team.

“So, the transition is not going to be the new coach; I think it's going to be the new kids getting accustomed to varsity-level baseball.”

At Mount St. Joseph, Harris is inheriting one of the area's longtime powerhouses. Norton's teams compiled a 603-264 record, perennially challenging for the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association — and before that Maryland Scholastic Association — titles while producing future major leaguers such as Mark Teixeira and Gavin Floyd.

That's why when it came time to find a successor, Norton could envision no one but Harris, his assistant of 27 years.

“When you make a transformation like that, where the coach has been around for a long, long time, you want someone who not only has that credibility, but also an association with the school and the program,” Norton said. “Jody had all those credentials.”

A former student of Norton's at Mount St. Joseph, Harris first came aboard as an assistant in 1985. He remained in place until four years ago, when he stepped aside to “see what else I could do in the springtime.”

He thought his coaching days were over, until a fateful conversation with his mentor, who was dealing with the dual responsibilities of coaching and his new job as principal.

“He approached me last year to come back to help deal with the transition,” Harris said. “We weren't sure how that was going to play out [for last season]. It worked out last year, and I think it made for a pretty seamless transition to this year.”

For the time being, Harris said he plans to take his coaching duties “one year at a time.”

The hiring came as welcomed news to senior Peter Solomon, who expects changes to be minimal.

“The majority of the drills are the same, but maybe Mr. Harris is a little more intense than Mr. Norton,” said Solomon, the Gaels' pitching ace. “He wants to give us a competitive edge, so when it comes down to crunchtime, and we need a big win, we won't be nervous and playing on our heels.”

Said Harris: “It wouldn't be too wise to make too many changes to a pretty successful formula.”

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