Fast starts: They build confidence and enhance excitement for high school sports teams.
Centennial High's baseball team is experiencing such a start, having won its first three league games and six of its first nine overall.
Brian Bickerton, a 16-year-old junior pitcher, is one of the keysto the Eagles' fast start. He is part of a strong three-man pitchingrotation that includes Justin Thomas and Jason Weinstein.
Bickerton is 3-0 including an opening-day three-hit victory over highly ranked Mount St. Joe, a team Centennial had not beaten since 1982. That was the year a fellow named Art Tate, one of Centennial's all-time great pitchers, stopped the Gaels.
Bickerton's 1-0 masterpiece against St. Joe, his first varsity start and one of three complete games hehas thrown, certainly opened a lot of eyes in baseball circles.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Bickerton fanned five and walked three against St. Joe, and as his catcher, Jon Loden, described it, Bickerton pitched a "smart game."
Bickerton throws hard but also possesses a good curve and change, so he kept St. Joe off balance.
"He threw a lot of curves and we didn't adjust," St. Joe Coach Dave Norton said. The Gaels are 10-2 this season, and remain one of the top-ranked teamsin The Sun's Top Ten poll.
"I was surprised we beat St. Joe, but our defense was great," Bickerton said.
St. Joe had its chances against Bickerton in the sixth and seventh innings but failed to score.Bickerton repeatedly credits his defense for saving the game. Trailing, 1-0, on an unearned run, St. Joe loaded the bases with no outs inthe sixth inning. Bickerton then struck out St. Joe's best hitter, Brian Bush.
"Brian (Bush) never strikes out," Coach Norton said.
Then Bickerton got Ryan Clark -- who is batting .400 with 15 RBI andlast week signed for a full scholarship to George Washington University -- to fly out to center field.
Center fielder Justin Thomas caught the ball and fired to first baseman Austin Groves, whose relay to Loden at home completed a double play.
In the seventh inning, St. Joe got a man on second base with one out, but Bickerton escaped the jam and fanned the final batter.
"Brian is not that overpowering, but he throws strikes and keeps us in the game," Centennial coach Ron Martin said. "He's also got command of quite a few pitches and he's not intimidated by anyone. You can't ask for much more."
Bickerton followed that first win by beating McDonogh, 8-2, on a second-straight three-hitter.
"I was pleased with my St. Joe game, but my control could have been better against McDonogh," Bickerton said.
Histhird win was a 4-2 seven-hitter against county foe Wilde Lake in which he fanned six and walked just two.
"Wilde Lake did hit him pretty good, but he spread the hits out," Martin said.
"He got a little too headstrong on what he wanted to throw against Wilde Lake and shook me off a few times," said veteran catcher Loden. "But he can bring it."
Bickerton is not considered to be as hard-throwing as lastyear's top pitchers, Alex Pugliese of Atholton and Howie Brown of Wilde Lake. But he's not too far behind them, and he's just a junior.
In 21 innings, Bickerton has allowed just 13 hits and has a 1.33 earned run average.
His contribution to Centennial's early success probably shouldn't be that much of a surprise. Last year on the junior varsity team, he pitched a no-hitter against JV champion Atholton. Centennial was the runner-up.
During the summer he pitched about 20 games for an amateur team coached by his father, George. That team won two league championships.
George Bickerton, 53, was a former pitcher at George Washington University and has been commissioner of the Howard CountyAdult Softball League for 18 years. So, Brian has baseball in his blood.
"Brian went to a winter baseball camp and started throwing a month before practice began," Martin said. "He's knowledgeable."
Martin and the Eagles just hope Bickerton can continue pitching the way he has been, and that he produces a few more big efforts against top county teams like the one against St. Joe.
If he does, Centennial could be looking at a county championship.
He is scheduled to start against league-leading and pre-season favorite Hammond Wednesday at Centennial.