It's been a long road back, but Zach Collins has made it.
Tomorrow night at McCurdy Field in Frederick he'll take the ball from Arundel skipper Bernie Walter and go out to pitch the state 4A championshipgame against defending champion Perry Hall of Baltimore County.
Arundel (19-4) plays Perry Hall (16-2) in the state 4A title gameat 7 p.m. and will be after its fifth state title and first since 1987.
Before the start of this school year, no one would have guessed that Collins would be starting the state championship game come May25.
"I was off all of last year because I ran into a little trouble, and I actually took the rest of the year off," said Collins, who got into a scuffle at Arundel last year that was serious enough to result in his transfer to Meade.
Collins stayed only a short time atMeade and by the spring dropped out of school. It didn't take him long to realize that he had better wise up and get back into school.
So, this past fall, he went to night school to earn his way back to Arundel. He met all the academic requirements and started the second semester at the Gambrills school and since then has righted himself.
Collins is a new person, thanks to his own battle to gain self-control and the counseling of Arundel assistant Tut O'Hara and head coach Walter.
Growing up in the Bowie area as a 15- to 17-year-old, Collins became a nasty street fighter, something he regrets.
"I had a lot of problems between ages 15 to 17, but I worked real hard to get back into Arundel this year, and I've matured a lot," said Collins."That all happened in the past and is over with now."
He lives inthe Arundel area with his mother and stepfather and is at peace withhimself.
The junior left-hander, who has gone 7-1 -- including Monday's 7-0 victory over Old Mill for the Region IV title -- is completing his first year of high school baseball with a positive attitude.
Normally, those who have successful junior and senior years in high school baseball can attribute it to a good summer playing the sport. There is no question that players are made in the summertime.
Collins is a rarity in that he didn't play last summer because he had to work. He'll play this summer, however, for Walter's defending national American Legion champion, Mayo Post No. 226.
While not playing, he kept in touch with Mayo assistant and Arundel coach O'Hara.
"Tut counseled Zach all summer," said Walter. "While Zach was struggling to get his life back together, Tut was somebody he could count on.
"Because of Tut's counseling, Zach came back to school with a pretty positive attitude, and he has worked hard to get where he is."
This was a troubled kid who now has his life in order, because he knew he had to go along with the program if he wanted to play high school baseball.
Collins is a great example of how valuable competitive sports can be, how high school sports can motivate young people tosucceed. Success on the baseball field has given him sorely needed self-esteem.
"I'm really proud of his social development," said Walter. "He's not only done well on the field, but by becoming a member of our team has also improved in school and as a person. He's got hisenergies focused in the right direction now."
As a pitcher, the improvement has been just as remarkable, so remarkable that Walter considers the hard-throwing left-hander to be a pro prospect.
"Yes, Ithink he can be a pro," said Walter, an associate scout for the Baltimore Orioles and former coach of the USA Junior 18-and-under team that won a world championship in Australia in 1987.
"Zach has a great curveball, throws everything hard, and has learned to change speedson all his pitches -- fastball, curve, slider and split-finger. And when he concentrates, he has excellent control."
Walter compares Collins to former Wildcat right-hander Neal Herrick and not to left-handers Dennis Neagle (now pitching AAA ball for the Minnesota Twins), who was the 1986 Anne Arundel County Sun Player of the Year after leading Arundel to a 20-1 record and the region final, and Kyle Coffman who pitched the Wildcats to the 1987 state championship.
"Zach is a power pitcher just as Neal was," Walter said. "Kyle was a curveballpitcher with good control who threw about 78-79 (mph), and Neagle was a classic three-pitch pitcher: fastball, slider and change."
Herrick pitched the Wildcats to state championships in 1976 and 1977 andwas the county's all-time winning pitcher until recently. Herrick had a county career-record 27 wins from 1975 to 1977, but Charlie Buckheit of Northeast has 29 and will pitch tomorrow's state 2A title gameagainst Hammond of Howard County.
Being compared to any of those guys is quite a compliment.
As for his velocity, Collins is close to what the pros look for, but his knack to pace himself might turn some scouts off.
"Zach pitches well enough to beat you," Walter said. "But he hasn't learned to showcase himself, which is OK for now.