Hebron gets helping hand from Zabel

Baseball: Senior John Zabel has excelled more on determination and poise than talent to become a three-sport standout, not to mention the top pitcher for the 9-3 Vikings.

April 21, 2002|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Mount Hebron pitcher John Zabel plays with poker-faced passion, never losing his cool, even after his defense collapses behind him or he gives up a home run.

The three-sport standout excels during pressure situations, leads by example and is enjoying a record of success during his senior year that most high school athletes only dream of.

He's also the type of player who brings out the passion in the coaches he plays for and against.

"I would give anything to coach that kid," said Long Reach baseball coach Tim O'Brien. "There are kids that play, and there are players. He's a player. He's a winner. He excels at everything he touches."

For starters, Zabel is batting .368 with two home runs and 14 RBIs, has a 4-1 pitching record with a 2.56 ERA and shines at shortstop when he's not striking batters out. As part of a tightly knit group of seniors, he has led the Vikings to first place (9-3, 8-2 Howard County), a position few expected them to see this season.

Against Atholton, a preseason favorite to win this season's county title, Zabel was one out away from a no-hitter before giving up a home run. Without flinching, he settled for a one-hit victory, 4-1.

Against perennial county contender and five-time state champion Glenelg, Zabel hit a game-winning two-run single in the top of the seventh, then earned the save by pitching a scoreless inning.

In basketball, Zabel led his team in scoring with a 15-point average. The Vikings went 12-11 during a rebuilding year with a new coach.

Against county basketball champion River Hill, he drove on 6-foot-10 center Kevin Steenberge, the county Player of the Year, and made a double-clutch left-handed hook shot to win a game at the buzzer in overtime. Fans stormed the court at Mount Hebron in celebration.

In football, as a wide receiver and defensive back, he led the Vikings (6-4) to their first winning season in 14 years by catching 44 passes for 754 yards and 13 touchdowns. Only one receiver in the Baltimore area, Mount St. Joseph's J.J. Outlaw, had more receptions and yardage.

"Everything we threw, he caught," said Vikings football coach Larry Luthe. "No one could cover him man-to-man. He's deceptively quick. He was our best skill player."

Against Long Reach, a team the Vikings had never beaten, he caught nine passes for 172 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 23-21 victory. His third touchdown with 40 seconds to play tied the score.

Luthe describes Zabel's personality as laid back. "Until game time. Then he turns it on when it counts," Luthe said. "He doesn't get real high or low. And he's very humble. He doesn't swagger or show his ego. He was second-team All-Met in football, and with his numbers a lot of players would have complained that they weren't first team. Not John. We'll miss him."

Zabel drifted into football, a sport he didn't play in rec leagues, after he was cut as a freshman from the JV soccer team. He had played soccer all his life.

In his typical modest fashion, Zabel doesn't complain about getting cut, but rationalizes: "We had an awesome soccer team that year."

In eighth grade, baseball was his favorite sport. But his travel-team coach disappeared with the team's money, more than $5,000. Even though the money was recovered, Zabel's affection for baseball suffered. "I kind of lost interest in baseball because of what happened."

He hasn't played on a highly competitive travel baseball team since that incident.

Zabel is the third of six children. His sister Katie plays lacrosse at Brown. His younger brother, Jim, plays varsity soccer and lacrosse.

Zabel has a 3.45 grade-point average and 1,110 SAT and wants to play football at Western Maryland or La Salle.

Because he is tall, angular and thin (6-1, 165 pounds), he doesn't have the look, at first glance, of a premier athlete. He likes to prove people wrong.

"People underestimate me," he said. "Especially in football and basketball. Every sport I play, we don't get respect."

Even now, some opposing coaches are expecting the Vikings' baseball team to fold in the second half of the season.

Zabel is determined not to let that happen.

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