The loud sound of baseballs hitting bats and gloves can be heard at St. Mary's, just as at this time every year. The position battles and the fielding practice are just the same as in the past. Yet this season, something is different.
The Saints did so well last year that they got a promotion of sorts. Time will tell whether that was a good thing.
This year, the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association baseball coaches decided the Saints were ready to move from the B Conference, where they are the two-time defending champions, to the tough A Conference. Yes, the same AConference that has produced such notables as Mark Teixeira of the New York Yankees and is a rich source of players every year for college programs and the major league baseball draft.
"My understanding is that there are two ways you can be moved up," Saints coach John Poss said. "You can ask to be moved, or you can be forced by the rules committee to move. We took the first route. We applied just after the end of last season, and they let us know very quickly that our application had been approved."
Unlike the Maryland Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the governing body of the state's public high schools, which divides its schools based on enrollment, the MIAA divides its schools based on competitive balance. By MIAA standards, it's hard to argue the Saints weren't ready to be moved up.
"It was always our goal to build the program to the point where this could happen," said Poss, who took over the program in 2012. "It has been a challenge, because I don't think people realize how small St.Mary's really is. We have about 495 students, and most of those are girls. That means we have roughly 240 boys we can chose from. We'll be competing against schools that have two and three times that number in the AConference."
Still, if the team was ever going to move, this is a good time. The Saints finished No. 3 in The Baltimore Sun's final baseball poll last year with a 25-2 record. They return seven of their nine starters, and all but one pitcher.
The pitching staff, led by senior Elliot Zoellner, who has committed to pitch at Maryland next season, and sophomore Stephen Pelli, should be one of the strengths of the team. Senior catcher Brady O'Neil, who has committed to play at South Carolina-Aiken, will also provide leadership. All three were picked to the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches preseason all-state team, tying for the most players by one team in the state.
To say that Poss' team was the biggest fish in a small B Conference pond the past few years would be accurate.
"I'm really going to miss having them in the B Conference," said Boys' Latin coach Bill Greenwell, whose team lost to the Saints in last year's title game. "They had a great team, and it was special when we played them. They always seemed to bring out the best in us. I think they are ready to make this move."
Greenwell said the fact that the Saints have a deep pitching staff will make the move smoother than many think.
"They have very, very good depth on their pitching staff," Greenwell said. "In the B Conference, you can sometimes get by with one or two good pitchers. In the A Conference, I don't think you can do that. Even the teams at the bottom of the conference are competitive, so you have to play your best every night.
So how does Greenwell think the Saints will do in their first year in the A Conference?
"I don't think, at the end of the year, that anyone will feel sorry for St. Mary's," he said. "That team is built to be in the AConference, and I think they will stay competitive for years to come at that level."
Gilman coach Larry Sheets, a former Oriole, also said he thinks the Saints will do well at their new level.
"I'm sure they'll do fine," he said. "The league is pretty balanced this year. I'd take a couple of power arms myself, and I'd feel pretty good about my chances."
Though Poss is excited, he has set a realistic goal for his team.
"Our goal this season is to make the playoffs," Poss said. "The top six teams advance, and I think we can be one of those teams. I am preaching to them that this is the A Conference, and you can't just show up and win. The depth in the A Conference is very good, so we have to be just as good."
Coming this week
Get ready for spring with our preview series, which includes stories, athletes to watch, polls and key numbers. Here's the schedule:
Today: Baseball PG 6
Sunday: Boys lacrosse
Online: Girls lacrosse