After more than 35 years in organized baseball, Coach Gene Bovello of the Cissell Saxon American Legion team is saying goodbye. He hopes to retire with a shot at the big prize.

Andy Coleman, a second baseman at Maryland-Baltimore County, was recently named college baseball player of the year for the state of Maryland. Now, he is batting a meager .100 for the Damascus American Legion team.

College Park Coach Bob Kovalchik has seen his team of role players start 8-1. A month away from the playoffs, he is longing for the joyride to continue.

The first half of every summer seems to have stories like these in area American Legion baseball. The upcoming half will determine which stories finish in success and which end in disappointment.

Bovello, once a catcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, heads a Legion team representing the Cissell Saxon post in Silver Spring. Following Sunday's 5-1 victory over Gaithersburg, Cissell Saxon is where many of Bovello's teams have been before -- in the thick of the American Legion regular-season race with a 10-1 record.

A key to Bovello's hope of leading Cissell Saxon to the Maryland state playoffs, which begin July 22 with the Montgomery County tournament and eventually lead to the state title games the first week of August in Hagerstown, is Keith Nalepka, a June graduate of Good Counsel.

Despite playing in only four of his team's nine games, Nalepka is batting .450 with two homers. Appearances in several all-star contests have occasionally yanked Nalepka from the Saxon lineup early in the summer.

Nine Paint Branch players, each a member of the Panthers Maryland Class 3A championship team which finished 20-0, also rank highly as assets. That group includes shortstop Dave Duggan and pitchers Ryan Lambert and Dave Seidel.

Lambert, 14, was 10-0 with a no-hitter as a Paint Branch freshman. He then led his Burtonsville team to an 18-0 record and championship of the Montgomery County junior league. Seidel finished 8-0, also with a no-hitter, for Paint Branch.

Cameron Rahnama, a 1985 Paint Branch graduate and currently Bovello's assistant, will take over as coach next season. Rahnama has found that passing down Bovello's theories of success can also be difficult unless some interpretation and clarification are added.

"Gene says baseball is 75 percent defense and 75 percent pitching, but then he qualifies that by saying 75 percent of pitching is your defense behind you," Rahnama says with a laugh. "He knows this game."

The members of the Damascus Legion 171 squad also know this game. Off to a 6-4 start, they enjoy the more experienced leadership of three college sophomores: Coleman, Maryland's Jared Savelson and Edwin LaGrama of High Point (N.C.).

One problem, though, is Coleman's anemic batting average. "He's struggling, but he's too good not to come around," Savelson says. "Our strong point is supposed to be hitting, but so far we haven't put too many runs on the board."

Saturday, Damascus had trouble hitting Lambert (2-0 this summer) in an 8-4 loss to Cissell Saxon. Although Scott Burton hit a home run for Damascus, Seidel, Pat Anderson and Gordon Davis homered for Cissell Saxon.

The best of Prince George's County American Legion baseball easily is Kovalchik's College Park team, which is 8-1 and has a pair of fine pitchers.

One of those pitchers Bob Partilla, a recent graduate of Parkdale High, where Kovalchik also coaches. Last week, Partilla had 14 strikeouts in a seven-hitter against Oxon Hill.

Opponents get no break when Partilla is not on the mound. Tim Parkham, a 1988 graduate of Laurel, is 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 27 strikeouts in only 16 innings.

Kovalchik said the pitching has been backed with an array of offensive heroes. In one victory, Jose Ramos had a last-inning single to drive home the winning run. Shortstop David Beach (DeMatha) has 10 steals and 12 runs batted in as a leadoff batter. Maryland sophomore Michael Oaks is flirting with a .500 batting average.

"We have no one outstanding player in the statistics, but a lot of balance," Kovalchik says. "Players come out of the woods for us when we need them the most. We're not flashy, but we're winning."