Last season, Sykesville's baseball team of 13- to 14-year-olds was only 13-23 in its inaugural campaign in the Baltimore Metro League Sophomore Division. But now, in only its second year, the county club could win it all.
Monday night, it nailed down the Sophomore Division's second-half title by topping the Yankee-Rebels, 6-3, at Johnnycake Middle School in Baltimore.
The locals now ride the crest of a 16-game winning streak and again will play the Baltimore City-based Yankee-Rebels, who won the first-half crown, in a best-of-three showdown this weekend at a location yet to be determined, for the overall divisional championship.
Sykesville's finish also has landed it a berth in the National Amateur Baseball Federation regional tournament, at Clinton, Prince George's County, July 18-21.
There it will compete against 10 to 20 teams from the Mid-Atlantic. It could have gone to Clinton even by finishing second, a fact that made Monday night's meeting "a no-lose game," as Manager George Hancock put it.
But his troops weren't in a second-place frame of mind.
"It was a game of pride, a game they wanted to win," Hancock said. "They wanted to show everybody they could do it."
And they did, jumping ahead, 6-0, after only two innings.
Jeremy Robinson blasted a bases-loaded triple to key a five-run second frame.
Sykesville coasted the rest of the way behind the steady hurling of right-hander Billy Staub, who allowed only five hits and tworuns in six innings. Relief specialist Sean Lookingbill pitched the seventh.
But Staub, the team's leading winner this year, had to leave with a sore arm, and Hancock, who also lost pitcher Robinson withan arm injury earlier in the year, may have to add a couple of hurlers before the tournament.
Pitching depth, ironically, was a team strength early in the year, with Mike Wisniewski and Jason Dean rounding out a five-man staff.
That staff, along with the rest of the team, was selected via tryout from a group of roughly 40 players, most of whom played in Sykesville's baseball program last year.
Hancocksaid the group needed more competition than local rec programs couldprovide and expected the Metro League to provide it.
"I knew we had a good group," he said. "I thought they could win if they jelled."
Sykesville went 13-5 the first half, including two wins over the Yankee-Rebs.
But the latter lost only those two games in finishingfirst.
The Yankee-Rebs then bumped off Sykesville the first two games of the second half. Sykesville lost again the following weekend for a 0-3 record, and the abyss of disappointment was staring Hancock's youngsters in the face.
He sat them down:
"We had a long talk. I reminded them how good I thought they were and that they had to believe in themselves."
They haven't lost since.
Sykesville hasscored an average of nine runs per game during the second half, allowing only three or four in each contest.
Pitcher Dean also has been an offensive force, leading the team in homers and RBI, while Robinson leads in batting.
"I've been real happy with the players' individual progress and the team's progress," said Hancock.
As for this weekend with the Yankee-Rebels, Hancock says that regardless of theoutcome, "It's a good ending to a good season."
"If we lose, it won't be jubilation; but it won't be a letdown as well as they've played."
Although a bit less climactic, Sykesville's littlest traveling team's season also has been outstanding.
The entrant in the Baltimore Beltway League's age 7-8 division went 7-1-1 to place third in that 13-team circuit.
Sykesville's squad was selected after mid-March tryouts by some 40 youngsters from its clinic division.
"We had no idea how we'd do when we started," Manager John Hamper said.
The team started awkwardly, losing the opening-game, 7-4, to Manchester, which went on to a 6-3 season.
But it never lost again.
Hamper said the key game was a midyear clash with Towson, which he described as a team "which always has a strong program."
In that one, his son Bryan, Jeremiah Poehlman and Kris Gooding combined to pitch a 12-0 no-hitter.
"At that point we could tell our pitching was falling into place and we were hitting the heck out of the ball," Hamper recalled. "That game was when we knew something was really going on.
"We gave up no more than two runs a game after that, and we were winning by scores like 33-0 and 27-2."
Showing its Beltway season was no fluke, the youngsters recently won Sykesville's 7-8 tournament.
Since season's end, the team has continued practicing for postseason tournaments, including the upcoming EDRECO tourney in Baltimore County.
Hamper says he and assistants Lou Slater, Chuck Poehlman and Keene Gooding try to keep those practices short and interesting to keep the youngsters' attention.
They also are keeping those potentbats lubricated by having the pitchers throw full speed in parts of batting practice.
"If we can hit them, we can hit anybody," Hampersaid.