Covering all their bases

Strong in every phase of the game, No. 1 Centennial is determined to erase a disappointing end to last season with another state title.

April 26, 2006|By GLENN GRAHAM | GLENN GRAHAM,SUN REPORTER

Turning a negative into a positive is just one of the philosophies that Centennial baseball coach Denis Ahearn uses to motivate his team.

Senior pitcher Scott Swinson found one such example the first day of school in September. A student aid for Ahearn during the last period of the day, Swinson walked into his coach's room to find a newspaper clipping of Wilde Lake celebrating its upset win over the then-defending state champion Eagles in last year's regional playoffs.

It was right in front for everyone to see, and - as Ahearn planned - it touched a nerve.

"It was the worst feeling to look at that, just terrible," Swinson said. "I wanted to rip it down and throw it in the trash, but I knew I couldn't do that. That just drives us. We want to make sure that doesn't happen again."

So far, so good.

The Eagles started strong this spring and have risen to the No. 1 position in The Sun's poll on their way to 15 straight wins.

With a team batting average of .362, a deep pitching staff that boasts an ERA under 2.00 and a defense that is reliable and smart, the Eagles - who have outscored their opponents by a 146-27 margin - believe they have all the resources needed to keep winning.

"It all starts with working hard in practice, and then that translates into the games," said junior Alex Bechta, who plays outfield, has five wins pitching and is hitting .316 with 11 walks and 19 runs scored. "We're trying to take it one game at a time and let it all add up at the end of the season."

Ahearn and his players said the biggest key to the team's success has been chemistry.

"The confidence we have in one another is amazing, and I think that's what pushes us ahead," said Swinson, who will play at George Washington next year. "It doesn't matter who's pitching, who has to make a play in the field or who is hitting, we always feel we can win."

The Eagles have proved to be resilient, as well.

Last week, in the last of their four games in New York, Centennial trailed New Rochelle (N.Y.) by seven runs after five innings. With a five-hour bus ride looming, the Eagles made sure it was a happy ride home by scoring three times in the sixth before a nine-run seventh inning for a 12-7 win that completed a four-win trip and put an improbable exclamation on the team-bonding experience.

"We were a little down, but once we scored those first couple runs, it was like, `We can do this,' and then the seventh inning came and we just tore it up," said outfielder-pitcher Ben Winter, who led off the seventh inning with an infield single. "Once you get one guy on and then the next person gets on, we just got more and more excited and it carries on through everybody."

Ahearn, a New York native in his fourth season at Centennial, couldn't have asked for a better ending to the trip.

"That type of win can carry you a good bit. It gives you a lot of fuel for those games that you may be down a run or two where you just believe you have what it takes to come out on top regardless," he said. "There's nothing that makes a five-hour bus ride breeze by, but it definitely helped extend our sense of accomplishment from the trip."

The Eagles have experienced their share of highs and lows over the past two seasons. In 2004, they captured the program's second state title, but they underachieved last year, finishing 14-7 and making an early exit from the playoffs.

"That was a great feeling in 2004 - winning a state title as a freshman - I couldn't have asked for anything more," said junior third baseman Austin Harclerode, who's batting .381 with 24 RBIs in the cleanup spot. "And then you look at last year how we let down, and that drives you even more to win another state title. Our main goal was to mix in everybody's personalities and get the good chemistry going.

"Last year, we had people more worried about their own individual stats than the team, and I think that's what inevitably made us fail. Now, this year, we're all working together and having fun."

The Eagles have plenty to work with.

Winter, who has four wins on the mound, is the Eagles' ninth hitter. He's batting .500 with four home runs and 22 RBIs.

Catcher Ryan Miller has capably replaced former standout Dan Shillinburg behind the plate and has scored 19 runs in the leadoff spot. Freshman Joey Couch has been a pleasant surprise at first base, hitting .382 and playing sound defense. Second baseman Owen Dresser is hitting .395 and has assumed a key leadership role.

Swinson is hitting .415 with 15 runs scored and has three wins with an 0.74 ERA. Junior pitcher Matt Hein has two wins.

"They have very few weaknesses," said Atholton coach Kevin Kelly, whose Raiders fell 5-0 to the Eagles earlier in the season. "Their ranking is well-deserved and people are going to be hard-pressed to beat them. But that's not to say they can't be beat, you just have to play a pretty great all-around game to get past them."

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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