The fact that Ballou High School's baseball team is having a fine season should come as no great surprise, considering its 10-4 record and sixth straight appearance in the Interhigh playoffs last season.
What may be surprising is the degree of success the Knights are enjoying this season.
Optimism was high for Ballou heading into 1986 play, what with practically the entire squad returning for another campaign. Yet neither the team nor Coach Maceo Hutcherson could have suspected that with the season drawing to a close, the Knights would be 12-0 in the Interhigh and 13-2 overall after defeating Cardozo Friday, 10-4.
"Basically, I'd say the reason we're playing as well as we are is because this particular group of kids has been together for a while," said Hutcherson. "They've played together, worked together and now they're maturing together as a team."
Unity, on the field and off, is something Hutcherson has preached to his teams since he took over as coach in 1980. Before that, he spent 12 years as a guidance counselor at the school. That occupation, Hutcherson believes, has been good preparation for dealing with a group of teen-agers.
"I try to teach the kids things that will be useful. Not just things having to do with baseball, but things they'll have to know about to succeed later on in life," Hutcherson said. "I like for them to treat me like a father."
But of course, every father has to know when to administer discipline, and Hutcherson, a former college pitcher, is a stickler for that quality, especially when it comes to baseball. Because of Hutcherson's dedication to discipline, his teams reflect that philosophy in their play. Traditionally, Ballou's teams are among the most fundamentally sound in the Interhigh.
"I make a point of trying to stress the basics and the finer points of the game," Hutcherson said. "If you work on the fundamentals enough, you can't help but improve."
Ballou's improvement in just one season has surprised Hutcherson himself. Heading into the last week of the season, the Knights' team batting average was .361, and the earned run average of the three starting pitchers was below 1.00.
The two most notable reasons for Ballou's success this season can be traced directly to the team's co-captains, pitcher Cortez (Butch) West and catcher Aaron McFarland, a battery of honor students, both of whom are enjoying superb seasons.
West, a junior right-hander, is 5-0 with a 0.80 ERA. Relying on a good fastball, West had walked only three batters through 40 innings. A third baseman when not pitching, West also is an outstanding hitter -- as his .529 batting average and six home runs demonstrate.
"I think I help the team more as a pitcher than as a third baseman," said West. "I don't know why, but I think I hit better when I'm pitching than when I'm not. Maybe it's because I'm trying that much harder to get the win."
Playing more than one position comes easily to the 17-year-old West, who further demonstrates his versatility by playing three varsity sports at Ballou. An excellent all-round athlete, the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder also plays running back and linebacker on the football team and guard on the basketball team. Participating in three sports, he says, never has been a problem.
"I enjoy playing all three sports, but baseball is my favorite. I've loved playing baseball since I was little," West said. "I'd really like to go to college on a baseball scholarship."
For McFarland, Ballou's 6-foot, 155-pound catcher, deciding on which college to attend is no longer a concern; he has accepted an academic scholarship to attend the University of Miami. But despite the security of that commitment, McFarland has kept his sights focused on making the best of his senior year.
"I feel if we continue playing the way we are, we should win the Interhigh this year. I truly believe that we just have the best talent," said McFarland, who is batting .420. "We're not really not that much better than last year; we had basically the same people then that we have now. It's just a matter of the guys maturing and pulling together as a team.
"The major difference is that we came out more serious this year. You could see it from the start. More of the guys were willing to work hard. Now it's starting to pay off, and it's making the season fun for everybody."
The president of the Honor Society at Ballou and an excellent student, McFarland had little trouble being accepted to colleges academically, but his immediate pursuit is an athletic one.
"I would love nothing more than to be able to make Miami's baseball team. That would be a dream come true. There's certainly no shortage of talented players at Miami, but all I can do is keep giving 110 percent. I'll just have to expect the worst and hope for the best."