QO’s Celenza walks softly but carries a big stick

The quiet man

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

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Mike Celenza, shown here stroking the game-winning hit against Arundel in last year’s 4A state title game, is a soft-spoken star for Quince Orchard.

In a sports world filled with trash-talking, intimidating stares and chest-thumping, Quince Orchard senior Mike Celenza’s soft-spoken, unassuming style is a refreshing change of pace.

Instead of talking a good game on the baseball diamond, the burly corner infielder⁄pitcher lets his skills at the plate and in the field speak louder than anything else.

‘‘I don’t like to be that guy everyone focuses on,” Celenza said. ‘‘I do what I have to do.”

That low-key style has made Celenza, whose nickname is ‘‘Babe”, as in Babe Ruth for his long-distance shots and left-handed swing, a popular teammate, but a lesser-known commodity when preseason and postseason awards are given out despite being one of the key forces in Quince Orchard’s run to the Class 4A state title a year ago.

‘‘He’s the most overlooked kid in the county and in the state,” said second-year Cougars coach Jason Gasaway, who is expecting big things from Celenza with the loss of numerous senior starters, including Joe Mattes and Brett Fox. ‘‘[Magruder senior] Matt Sweeney was given All-American preseason honors [the Louisville Slugger’s Pre-Season H.S. All-American Baseball team] and he deserves it, but as an all-around hitter with power and average, Mike Celenza is a close second.”

Celenza, who saw time at first and third base last year as a junior, batted .429 with 12 doubles, four home runs, 30 runs batted in and 23 runs scored. He was the team’s No. 3 starting pitcher as well, going 2-1 with a 2.21 earned-run average and was a second-team All-Gazette selection in 2005.

In the team’s 10-9 state final win over Arundel last spring, Celenza went 3 for 4 with two runs batted in and a double. His bases-loaded single to left field in the bottom of the seventh finalized Quince Orchard’s rally from an early 7-0 deficit.

Celenza’s production came against all comers, going 12 for 33 (.363 average) with a home run and four doubles against some of the county’s elite pitchers, including Northwest’s Jensen Pupa, Watkins Mill’s Wes Shifflet and Whitman’s Gabe Feldman.

‘‘He’s got a phenomenal swing and a great eye,” Gasaway said. ‘‘Since I’ve been playing or coaching, I’ve never seen a kid hit with power from line to line like he can. Defensively, he has great hands. If he was a little bit faster, he could easily be a shortstop. He played half of the season at third base and he made one error.”

Celenza followed his stellar high-school season by leading Gaithersburg Post 295 to a third straight Montgomery County American Legion baseball title with a .445 batting average to go with nine home runs and 50 RBI last summer.

Gaithersburg 295 coach Rick Price said at the end of last season that umpires made a point to express how much better Celenza had become over the summer. Perhaps even more impressive was his ability to transition from his usual infield positions to catcher for Post 295 when teammates were lost to injury.

‘‘He’s what I like to call a throwback player,” said Gaithersburg High coach Jason Woodward, whose Trojans were upended, 3-2, by the Cougars in the 4A West Region final. ‘‘He’s the kid you can count on to catch, to play first, play third and pitch. He does anything he can to make his team better.

‘‘He’s a very scary batter when he’s up. He makes the pitcher work and he makes the coach calling the pitches work. He’s the type of kid who can hit for power or sit there and drive the gap for a single or double.”

Despite those impressive statistics, Celenza’s name didn’t make it on the recently announced Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches’ Preseason All-State Team, where he would have joined teammate Kevin Collins, a senior outfielder.

‘‘It doesn’t bother me,” Celenza said.

Celenza’s exploits haven’t gone entirely unnoticed, however, as Salisbury State University pushed hard to land the versatile player and he gladly accepted the invitation.

‘‘I wanted to play baseball and it’s close and they wanted me,” said Celenza on why he chose the NCAA Division III powerhouse.

But first, Celenza and his teammates have the little matter of defending their state championship.

‘‘We can do it,” he said. ‘‘We’ve got the hitting and the pitching even though people don’t think we have the pitching. I want the state championship.”

So maybe he’s not above talking the talk. But Celenza’s really about walking the walk.