Atholton can win again, but will Raiders do it? Strong pitching leads the reasons defending champion could repeat

Howard County Baseball Preview

March 21, 1997|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

The Atholton Raiders return six starters and three All-County players from a ninth-ranked, 18-5 team that lost last spring to Bel Air in the state Class 3A final, 3-2.

That returning strength makes Atholton the favorite to defend its county championship.

Centennial appears to have the best chance to upend Atholton, but Glenelg, Mount Hebron, Hammond and Howard all have enough talent to challenge in a 10-team league that has two first-year teams and five new coaches.

Most importantly for Atholton, it returns two All-County pitchers, junior Doug Airel and senior Chris Russ.

Airel (6-1) held Centennial to two hits in the regional semifinal and notched a key 9-3 victory over county runner-up Glenelg to earn first-team honors last spring. In 54 2/3 innings, he struck out 56, walked 39 and allowed 38 hits. He had a 2.56 ERA.

Russ, a left-hander, beat Broadneck in the playoffs and won second-team All-County honors with a 4-2 record.

Atholton has additional pitching depth with Scott Sabot and Corey Cannell, and a strong closer in Sean Williams.

"Pitching will be our strongest point," said Williams, a second-team All-Metro pick who batted .500 (32-for-64), knocked 40 runs and had five doubles, four triples and four home runs. He also could make the sensational play in the field, and stole 13 bases in 14 attempts. He and Russ already are headed to Towson State on partial baseball scholarships.

"But we're also a lot deeper than last season. We had 11 juniors who are now seniors, and all of them can step in and play. We have nine guys capable of hitting .300," Williams said.

Russ and Sabot both batted .310 last season, but the Raiders graduated two first-team All-County performers in second baseman Jason Sandner (.405) and catcher Travis Devine (.463).

"Who expected going into last season that Travis would hit that high?" Williams said. "Sabot and Russ are capable of hitting .400 this season."

Coach Kevin Kelly thinks he has a capable replacement for Devine in catcher Chris Madiou, the designated hitter last season. Madiou has a quick bat.

Cannell will replace Sandner, who is playing at Towson State on a baseball scholarship.

One of the big questions is whether Williams, who batted third last season, can duplicate his career year without hitters like Sandner and Devine sandwiched around him in the batting order.

"My goal is to match last year, but it will be difficult to duplicate it," Williams said. "If other guys step up, then I can."

The Raiders have plenty of speed with Williams, Brent Hooper, Ryan Lambert and Ryan Schultz, so they should challenge opposing catchers and take the extra base on singles or doubles to the outfield.

One obstacle the Raiders face this season is that every team will be looking to them as the team to beat from the start, so they'll be seeing only top pitchers. Last year, they entered the season with so many question marks that they were regarded as a middle-of-the-pack team that didn't even have a usable home field.

"We still have some holes to fill," Williams said, "but we'll be regarded as favorite. I think Centennial is capable of running away with it, and Glenelg is always good."

Centennial hopes to rebound from a disappointing 8-11 season in which pitching star Denny Chapman was 2-3 with a 3.68 ERA.

Chapman, 6-4, 180-pound right-hander, is headed to Virginia on a nearly-full baseball scholarship, following an impressive fall season playing with the Oriolelanders. He throws 88-to-90 mph.

Centennial has oustanding sophomores, including catcher Matt Deuchler, shortstop Mike Martin, infielder Chris Tiedemann and designated hitter Shawn Cudzilo.

Deuchler, a transfer from Calvert Hall, is tabbed as a sure all-star. He hit 11 home runs for the 15-16 Reds last summer. "He has a cannon for an arm and can run and hit," Centennial coach Ron Martin said.

Martin's son, Mike, batted .327 last season and moves to shortstop from catcher. Cudzilo was DH half the season and batted .290.

Returnees include juniors Jamie McDonald, who platooned at first base and batted .276, and Pat Conners, who played the second half the season and hit .289.

Martin has kept a freshman pitcher for the first time, Nate Ochsner, who is slated to be the No. 2 starter. Ochsner is a smooth right-hander who played for the Yankee Rebels last summer.

"We're young, but we're not rebuilding," Martin said. "We like our chances."

Centennial's third starter is Jason Gordon, a transfer from McDonogh last season, who broke his wrist one week before the season began. Now he's ready.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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