When Lou Eckerl took over as the Calvert Hall baseball coach in 2002, he was well aware he’d signed up for a tough task.
Eckerl replaced Joe Binder, who won 462 games and 11 championships with the Cardinals before stepping down after the 2001 season. Six times, Eckerl was part of the title run as served as an assistant to Binder from 1984-1994.
Eckerl took the job and built his own long line of success. The Cardinals won five consecutive Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championships from 2005-2009 plus three more, including last spring, which was Calvert Hall’s first title since 2013.
This season, if it gets underway after a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, will be Eckerl’s 19th as the Cardinals’ head man, and Calvert Hall has made the final round 16 times. Eckerl thought last year’s championship was a big one because it ended that dry spell — especially because the Cardinals lost their first two games in the double-elimination tournament in 2018, something that shocked the team yet fired them up for last season.
“It was one of the most satisfying wins,” Eckerl said. “We really coached last year. We didn’t just roll out and have it come easy. But when you have guys buy in and they’re listening to you and doing what you’re asking, things [go well].”
Calvert Hall has won 28 baseball championships in school history and that legacy of success is one reason the school is able to get players to come there and play baseball.
Plus, the Cardinals are strong on the basics of the game. Eckerl and staff coach just the way Binder did for years — emphasizing the fundamentals in practice that carry over to the games. Calvert Hall rarely will beat itself, and that makes life tougher for opponents.
“They have good coaches, and they have a great number of kids to choose from; that’s a great combination,” said long-time Gilman coach and former Orioles outfielder Larry Sheets. “They’re always going to be there. They’ve got that reputation, and kids want to go there and play. They work at the game, there’s no doubt about that.”
But Eckerl had to establish his style when taking over for Binder 18 years ago. Since Eckerl had worked on Binder’s staff for those several years, he knew what worked and the best ways to use it.
Eckerl knew wins were expected.
“I felt the pressure of trying to maintain that tradition, that winning tradition,” Eckerl said. “I really learned a lot from Joe. He was really demanding of the guys [and wanted them] to play with passion and with respect for the game.”
It took a few years for the Cardinals to win a title under Eckerl. They finally got one during his fourth season, the beginning of that five-year run which set an MIAA A Conference record.
“As soon as we started to win, guys bought in really quickly,” Eckerl said.
Archbishop Spalding coach Joe Palumbo agreed with Sheets, saying the Cardinals build a solid base with fundamentals.
Palumbo said those in the MIAA A Conference know that Calvert Hall is going to be good on a regular basis, and that the Cardinals simply won’t beat themselves often.
“They just have a culture about them,” Palumbo said. “They just have high expectations of their players. They make it really hard, year in and year out, to overtake them as the top team in this league. They are consistently battling for that top spot.”
That’s something Loyola Blakefield coach Mike Kelly also said helps Calvert Hall. Since the Cardinals have made the finals 16 of the past 18 years, others expect them to be right there on a regular basis.
It’s also a way for other players to become interested in Calvert Hall and keeps the team more than competitive. The Cardinals finished 26-4 last year during its championship run, and they’ll have plenty of talent once more this season as they do most years.
“The biggest thing they have is they have been so good for so long that they have a legacy that draws kids in,” Kelly said. “They do everything right. They have a program going. Other teams have it as well, but they’ve just been doing it longer.”
Eckerl expects to bring back about half of his starters if the season gets underway. The biggest question is probably what will happen with the season when regular play starts. When it does, Eckerl will continue using the lessons he took from Binder and made his own.
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“Come out every day and give it your best,” Eckerl said. “Don’t short-change yourself or the game.”