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Howard pitcher Brendan Foster helped lead the Lions to a state title last season.
Howard pitcher Brendan Foster helped lead the Lions to a state title last season. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As Gabe Delgado, Brendan Foster, Brian Jakubek and Ryan Kulick stood in Howard High School’s home dugout and answered questions about the 2019 baseball season, they each took turns periodically looking out on to the field. An interview was a nice distraction, but these Lions were ready to get back to work.

“It is nice to get back on the field, see some live batters and get in some game situations,” said Delgado, a UMBC commit who was named the Howard County Pitcher of the Year in 2018. “You build that winning culture and mentality and come in every day and work your hardest knowing that, if we put the work in, we will have some good results. We know that, if we play to the best of our abilities, we can win any situation we get into.”

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That mindset certainly played out last season as Howard won five straight playoff games over such talented sides as Catonsville, Dulaney and Severna Park to earn the Class 4A state championship, the school’s first state baseball title.

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“Over the last few years, we have turned the corner from being a team that schools overlook to having the caliber of play that has put us on the map,” Howard coach Nick Hoffner said.

Hoffner’s group has won two straight region crowns, recording 37 victories in the process. The last was possibly the least likely, as Severna Park took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning in the state final at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. No sweat. The Lions scored four runs, the last two coming on Kulick’s game-winning single with two outs and two strikes, to win, 5-4, the team’s third victory by one run in the playoffs.

Coming off a 20-5 season, the Lions return 15 of 19 players this spring.

“It [the championship] is in the past. We are 0-0 again,” Hoffner said. “We need to work hard and try to get better each day, with the same goal as always — playing our best baseball in May. Expectations are certainly higher after the run in the playoffs, but the guys are just as hungry again.”

How do you leave that amazing feeling in the past, while letting that winning sensation continue to influence the team’s new run this year?

“We definitely try to stay focused and have the same attitude as last season,” said Foster, a Salisbury signee. “We want to strengthen up and work on the problems we had last year.”

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There weren’t many, but the players and their coach acknowledge that losing the Howard County championship to Marriotts Ridge on the last day of the regular season because of a 6-1 loss to Reservoir still stings. Hoffner does not know the exact year; he just knows that it has been a good long while since the team has won the county title.

“It is also our senior year and our last chance to play with everyone,” Kulick, a York College commit, said. “We want to go out on a championship.”

This is a determined group that knows how to have fun. Confidence and looseness are not problems for this team. Neither is being humble.

“We have the mentality to do whatever it takes to win,” said Jakubek, another York College commit who is the team’s starting catcher, as well as closer. “We come ready to play every game and we don’t take anyone lightly. We just need to continue to stick with what’s working.”

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Hoffner understands what it takes and understands that having a veteran team that has experienced the highs and lows of a state tournament run leave little room for error.

“This group is hungry to get back, and it starts in the county,” Hoffner said. “Throughout Howard, 1-12, if you don’t come to play, and team can beat any team in the county. I want to get back to states and do it again. I love the process and I love seeing the guys progress throughout the season.”

Howard has so much firepower returning. Alex Campbell (.351, 21 RBIs in 2018) and Jerry O’Neill (.370, four triples) join Kulick (.439, 27 RBIs), Jakubek (.303, seven doubles) and Delgado (.339, 13 RBIs) as offensive threats.

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On the mound, pick your poison. Delgado (5-2, 1.92 ERA, 73 strikeouts in 2018), Foster (3-2, 2.91 ERA, 58 Ks) and Kulick (3-0, 1.81 ERA, two saves) all get it done, and Jakubek (5-0, 0.62 ERA) was masterful all season.

Not bad for a group of former Elkridge Youth Organization boys who have played with each other for longer than anyone can remember.

“I love every minute of it — the friendships, the hard times and good times — all of it,” Jakubek said.

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