Upcounty hoping to translate loss into gain

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Click here to enlarge this photo
brian lewis⁄the gazette
The left side of Damascus’ infield — seniors Austin Bernardo (left) and Jeff Blake (right) — is just part of the reason the Swarmin’ Hornets believe they can overcome the graduation loss of All-Gazette Player of the Year Kevin Keith.

What a difference a year makes.

Upcounty baseball teams, with the exception of Magruder, took some heavy graduation losses last year. Damascus saw All-Gazette Player of the Year Kevin Keith depart. Gaithersburg, Northwest and Quince Orchard also enter this spring with numerous holes to fill.

A total of eight first- or second-team All-Gazette selections will not return this season, including Gaithersburg pitchers Ian Marshall (Richmond) and Austin Hurd (Towson), Northwest pitchers Jensen Pupa (Montgomery College-Germantown) and Brady Stouffer (Hartford), and Quince Orchard hurlers Joe Mattes (Southeastern Louisiana) and Brett Fox. Those players combined for 34 wins on the mound in 2005 and most of them also contributed mightily on the offensive side.

With the loss of Keith (17 HRs, 82 RBI last two years) and eight other seniors, Damascus appears, at first glance, to be in a rebuilding mode, but fifth-year coach Jim McManus doesn’t believe so. Certainly not with the return of some talented veterans in senior pitcher⁄first baseman Austin Bernardo (headed to Shepherd), senior second baseman⁄pitcher Jeff Blake, senior first baseman Steve Baisey and senior center fielder Steve Grigsby, as well as the addition of a talented junior class that helped produce a 14-1 record on junior varsity a year ago.

Headlining that stellar class is catcher⁄pitcher Tommy Whalen, pitcher⁄third baseman Kevin Story, a 6-2 righthander, and pitcher Kenny Voigt.

‘‘Our junior class is really, really solid,” McManus said. ‘‘We’ve always had one or two pitchers. This year, we have number of kids who can pitch. We have eight possible starters. We’re excited about that. We’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

Northwest appears to be in the other boat, having to reload with much less experience after the loss of nine seniors. A move to the Class 4A ranks won’t help matters either.

Senior pitcher Jay Tolan (1-1, 5.83 ERA) and junior pitcher John Brauch (2-2, 5.15 ERA, .254 BA) and sophomore center fielder⁄pitcher Spencer Pearman will look to keep Northwest’s run of two straight division titles going. Junior catcher Ezequiel Vazquez, who bats from the left side, has played well in preseason scrimmages.

Gaithersburg, Quince Orchard and Wootton all reside somewhere in the middle that pack, but closer to Damascus than Northwest with the return of some key players on each team.

Quince Orchard, the defending 4A state champion, is led by senior outfielder Kevin Collins and senior corner infielder⁄pitcher Mike Celenza. Collins, who was named to the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches Preseason All-State Team, batted a sizzling .516 with 10 doubles, three triples, 15 walks, 30 runs and 20 RBI last year. Celenza, who had the game-winning hit in the team’s 10-9 win over Arundel in the 4A title game, hit .429 with 12 doubles, four home runs, 30 RBI and 23 runs at the plate, while going 2-1 with a 2.21 ERA on the mound.

Other key players will be senior pitcher Andy Moldawer, senior catcher Eric Weller and senior outfielder Matt O’Keefe.

‘‘We are looking to have another successful season,” Cougars coach Jason Gasaway said. ‘‘We lost several key seniors but expect our returning seniors and juniors to step up.”

Wootton not only lost some key seniors from last year’s team but also All-Gazette first-team selection Bobby Kim, who will sit out his senior year for personal reasons, according to Wootton coach Joe Cassidy. He hit .463 last year and was 5-1 on the mound.

Cassidy’s cupboard is certainly not bare, though, with the return of senior pitcher⁄catcher Dennis Schoonmaker (.418 BA, 21 RBI, 3.33 ERA), junior outfielder⁄pitcher Peter Barrett (.379, 4 HRs, 13 RBI), junior outfielder⁄pitcher Sam Bender (.318, 12 RBI), senior outfielder Alex Bastow (.315, 9 stolen bases) and senior second baseman Cory Hatch (.386, 13 RBI).

‘‘All of those teams are like us — they lost good players to graduation, have good players coming back and hope their younger guys can step in and play at a high level,” Cassidy said of the county’s upper-echelon programs.

Gaithersburg coach Jason Woodward believes he has a solid pitching staff, but ‘‘they do not have the game experience on the varsity level. The team’s returning pitchers threw just 27 of the team’s 138 innings last year. Those young pitchers will have two things going for them: a veteran catcher in senior Rick Phillips (.444, 4 HRs, 28 RBI) and a seasoned infield that is anchored by Steve Delmar (.443, 20 RBI) and Ben Cross (.358, 4 HR, 20 RBI).

The Trojans’ pitching staff has been bolstered by the addition of sophomore Kevin Brady and St. John’s transfer Nick Franceski, who is also an infielder, and the return of senior Erik Suth.

While Magruder wasn’t immune to the graduation bug, the Colonels return a lot of talent from last year’s 13-win team, including senior corner infielder Matt Sweeney, an All-Gazette first-team performer.

Sweeney mashed the ball last year in what was his best season to date, compiling six home runs, 28 RBI, 24 runs and 17 runs and hitting .463. He added 14 more home runs with 41 RBI (during the regular season) for Gaithersburg Post 104 last summer and was named to the Louisville Slugger’s Pre-Season High School All-American Baseball Team.

Sweeney is surrounded by a solid contingent that includes senior shortstop Mitch Levine, who batted .385 with 34 runs, nine extra-base hits, 13 RBI and 16 stolen bases, along with senior second baseman Ross Sweeney (Matt’s cousin) and senior pitchers Sean Hagen and Jon Brandon.

‘‘If our pitching holds up, I think that we’re going to be very, very competitive,” said Colonels coach Bob Maxey, who will step down after this season to be a resource teacher at the new Clarksburg High. ‘‘We’re going to score some runs. We have a pretty potent offensive lineup. We’ll try to outslug as many people as we can.”

Maxey is 15 wins shy of 400 for his career. He also coached at Hammond High, Gallaudet University and Howard Community College.

‘‘We’ve never won a regional championship, and the school’s been around for quite some time,” Maxey said. ‘‘That’s probably our main goal. It will be a dogfight every day.”

Unlike many of its upcounty neighbors, Watkins Mill returns a fair share of its 2005 lineup, which could portend an improvement on last year’s 6-10 record. Senior left-handed pitcher Wes Shifflet, who recently committed to Towson University, leads the Wolverines. Shifflet, who also plays first base, compiled a 3.34 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 50 innings pitched and also hit .430 with four home runs and 15 runs batted in a year ago.

‘‘He’s always around the plate,” Wolverines coach Ken Brace said. ‘‘He’s gotten bigger and stronger the last couple of years. I think he’ll have a good season for us.”

The rest of Brace’s squad includes junior catcher Tony Urick, senior middle infielder Jack Celmer, senior utility man Matt Hollenberg, senior pitcher⁄center fielder Sam Mason and sophomores Zack Skellchock (outfield⁄pitcher) and Matt Civetti (outfield⁄third base).

‘‘I expect we’ll have a winning record, but I don’t know if we’ll be in the top echelon,” Brace said. ‘‘Shifflet could be dangerous.”

Poolesville returns seven seniors and a key junior from a team that reached the 1A South Region semifinal before falling to eventual region champion Brunswick.

‘‘This should be a big year for Poolesville baseball,” Falcons coach Will Gant said. ‘‘We play a very competitive schedule this year, which should help us prepare for the playoffs. Our playoffs go through Frederick County.”

Top seniors include first baseman Sean Foy (.333, 17 RBI), outfielders Roger Torres (.333, 14 RBI) and Jon Miller (.300, 15 runs), third baseman Bobby Dolan (.286, 16 RBI) and pitcher Matt Williquette. Junior outfielder Kevin Campbell (.368) also returns.

Fast facts

DamascusSwarmin’ Hornets

Head coach: Jim McManus, 5th year (55-17 record)

Last year’s record: 12-5

League affiliation: Montgomery 4A East

Last state playoff appearance: 2002 (5th)

Last state title: 2000 (2nd)

Players to watch: Austin Bernardo (Sr., 1B⁄P), Jeff Blake (Sr., 2B⁄P), Steve Baisey (Sr., DH⁄1B), Steve Grigsby (Sr., CF)

Gaithersburg Trojans

Head coach: Jason Woodward, 6th year (78-28 record)

Last year’s record: 18-3

League affiliation: Montgomery 4A South

Last state playoff appearance: 1998 (6th)

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Steven Delmar (Sr., INF), Rick Phillips (Sr., C)

Magruder Colonels

Head coach: Bob Maxey, 3rd year

Last year’s record: 13-5

League affiliation: Montgomery 4A East

Last state playoff appearance: None

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Matt Sweeney (Sr., 1B⁄3B), Mitch Levine (Sr., SS), Ross Sweeney (Sr., 2B), Sean Hagen (Sr., P)

Northwest Jaguars

Head coach: Matt Noble, 4th year (32-26 Northwest record, 60-49 career)

Last year’s record: 12-7

League affiliation: Montgomery 4A East

Last state playoff appearance: None

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Jay Tolan (Sr., P⁄3B), John Brauch (Jr., P⁄3B), Ezequiel Vazquez (Jr., C), Spencer Pearman (So, OF)

Poolesville Falcons

Head coach: Will Gant, 4th year (13-40 record, 42-54 career)

Last year’s record: 7-13

League affiliation: Montgomery 3A⁄2A⁄1A

Last state playoff appearance: None

Last state title: None

Players to watch: Sean Foy (Sr., 1B), Roger Torres (Sr., OF), Matt Williquette (Sr., P)

Quince Orchard Cougars

Head coach: Jason Gasaway, 2nd year

Last year’s record: 19-2

League affiliation: Montgomery 4A East

Last state playoff appearance: 2005 (2nd)

Last state title: 2005 (1st)

Players to watch: Kevin Collins (Sr., OF), Mike Celenza (Sr., INF⁄P), Eric Weller (Sr., C), Andy Moldawer (Sr., P)

Watkins Mill Wolverines

Head coach: Ken Brace, 9th year (14th year overall, 164-77 career record)

Last year’s record: 6-10

League affiliation: Montgomery 4A South

Last state playoff appearance: 2000 (4th)

Last state title: 2000 (1st)

Players to watch: Wes Shifflet (Sr., P⁄OF), Tony Urick (Jr., C), Jack Celmer (Sr., SS), Matt Hollenberg (Sr., INF⁄DH)