For the North Carroll baseball team, this has been a season of firsts. Earlier this month, the Panthers clinched their first-ever county title.
And yesterday, they appeared in their first state semifinal, meeting J.M. Bennett of Wicomico County for the right to advance to the Class 3A championship game.
"For what these kids have accomplished, it's just been a magical run," coach Denny Snyder said. "The kids have just stepped it up."
That's been particularly true on the mound. Led by ace Dan Ditman, the Panthers have pitched to an ERA just over 3.00, with solid contributions from Justin Hare, who was out injured most of last season, and Dominic Pasta.
The Panthers recovered from a midseason slump, during which they lost to Century, Linganore and Westminster by a combined 25-7 in the span of two weeks.
"It was a kind of tough," Snyder said. "I think the kids realized, `Look, we set goals at the beginning of the year. Let's reach those goals.' I think that seeing the opportunity to win the county added that little extra motivation ... and our pitching really picked up."
The team went on to win nine out of 10, including Class 3A West playoff wins over Linganore, Westminster and Tuscarora, heading into yesterday's state semifinal. In their three playoff games prior to yesterday, the Panthers had allowed a total of three earned runs.
Last Wednesday's 6-1 win over host Westminster was particularly uplifting, considering the Panthers had lost to the Owls twice during the regular season. Hare pitched a complete-game five-hitter and Evan Picciotto added a pair of doubles for the victors.
"It's just been a different player stepping up each game," Snyder said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Putting it together
First-year Westminster girls lacrosse coach Beth Nave said that the pieces of a solid team already were in place prior to this season. They just needed to be put together.
The former Good Counsel coach certainly did just that, leading the Owls to a 13-4 record and a trip to the Class 4A-3A state semifinals.
"It was bringing them together as a team and expecting them to play as a team," Nave said. "They were kind of a disheveled group when I got them. They had a lot of young talent, but they just needed guidance."
Nave, in her first season with the Owls after 12 seasons as head coach at the Washington-area school, provided plenty of it. The team set goals of competing with some of the county's traditional powers, then fulfilled them by beating Liberty for the first time in 16 years and falling to Winters Mill by just two goals.
"We didn't want to set our goals too high this year ... we just wanted to be more competitive," Nave said. "We wanted people to know that we are going to be the real deal."
Nave also believes that her young defense, led by Nikki Cory, Jen Hardesty, Claire Jancuska, Madalyn Jamison and goalie Erin Will, was the foundation of the team. The Owls held opponents to six goals or less seven times this season.
"There were major things accomplished," Nave said.
Following a nightmare of a start, the North Carroll boys lacrosse team this season learned about the importance of second effort.
The Panthers began the spring 0-7 before winning eight of their final 10 games to advance all the way to the Class 4A-3A North regional final. There, even a 13-8 loss to Westminster last week did little to taint their accomplishment.
"I'm proud of my guys," Panthers coach John Piper said. "We were about to fall apart. Guys were on each other, coaches were on each other - we were a mess. But I've got a lot of pride in those guys ... and they weren't about to throw in the towel. We came together and said, `This has got to stop. You've got to support each other and be a family.' After that, we came out rolling."
The Panthers definitely rolled through the early rounds of the playoffs, defeating Magruder, Gaithersburg and Quince Orchard by a combined score of 47-14.
The regional final against Westminster was a microcosm of their season. After trailing 8-1, North Carroll rallied behind four goals from attackman Shane Clift to make a game of it, but eventually ran out of time.
By a nose
Francis Scott Key boys track coach Tim Walsh figured that his team had a good shot at winning Saturday's Class 2A West meet. He just never expected the meet to be so close.
The Eagles - who last week tied Westminster for the county title - edged Liberty, 110-109.5.
"This wasn't just about one or two events," Walsh said. "Everything was so crucial."
Though Liberty picked up a combined 34 points in the 800 and 1,600, Key more than made up the difference in other events. In the 300 hurdles, Mike Vitri took second and Kyle Henning was fourth, thrower Josh Cole won the shot put and took third in the discus, and Adam Mitcheltree picked up a pair of critical points by taking fifth in the 200.
Most importantly, the Eagles will take all 15 of their athletes to the state meet, which begins tomorrow at Morgan State University.
"I think a few relays will do well and I think a few individuals will do really well," Walsh said. "Just to get there with the amount of kids that we have is an accomplishment in itself."
In girls action, North Carroll won the Class 3A West meet, rallying from a 13-point deficit at the end of the first day to defeat host Linganore, 128-126.
The Panthers' Katie Hursey earned big points by winning the 800, 1,600 and 3,200, and the team also earned the top three spots in the pole vault.