Broadneck seniors Preston Pehrson and Freddie Steinmark have created their own sign language on the baseball diamond. They employ little signals only they understand and secrets they won't reveal.

"We've got our own little pickoff system," said Steinmark, the team's shortstop.

"I'm not going to tell you, but we have our own plays," said Pehrson, arguably the best catcher in the county. "I think we have one of the best infields in the county. . . . I can throw down to second whenever I want."

That comfort level and talent "up the middle," as players and coaches typically call it, wins games. Teams with the most talent and speed at catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second base and center field are generally the teams to beat. Last year's top teams -- Old Mill, Severna Park, Arundel, Northeast, Southern and Broadneck -- all have experienced players returning at several of those key positions.

The most pressure is on the pitcher, said Broadneck Coach Sean Tettemer. Though the Bruins lack depth on the mound, they do have experience in senior Mike Heidler, who was 5-0 last year. Severna Park senior Ryan Doot started the Falcons' big games last year and finished the season with a 4-2 record and 30 strikeouts in 341/3 innings for a 3.47 earned run average. Southern senior pitcher Justin Shepherd led the Bulldogs to the 2A South state championship game with 57 strikeouts and a 2.01 ERA. Arundel senior pitcher Joey Frykman finished with a 3-3 record and a 2.21 ERA. He has been working with senior catcher Jason Clemons for the last two years.

"I feel pretty strong about our midfield," said Clemons. "They keep me in the game and make sure I can throw guys out. I know our middle infield snags a lot of balls. We work a lot on footwork and staying down, fast hands. We work a lot with the pitcher, too, because if he doesn't get the ball quick to the plate, we can't throw anybody out. It's really a whole team effort. If the fielders don't help me out, I can't do it by myself."

Northeast will have a few new faces, but senior second baseman Anthony Williams gives the Eagles the defensive presence they are known for, as he had 17 straight errorless games last year and finished with only three errors on the season. He either initiated or turned 19 double plays last year, just shy of the state record. Williams complements senior pitcher Chorye Spoone, who had 43 strikeouts and a 4-3 record.

"They say championship teams are made up the middle, and when we made our championship run in 2001, we had all-county players at all those positions," Williams said. "It's important, especially for our team. Northeast is known for its defense in recent years.

"The middle infielders, shortstop and second base have to be on the same page as far as knowing each other's moves. That's pretty much the main thing. Pitchers and catchers have to be on the same page. They have to know who's going to be breaking to the bag. I'd say we build our team around the middle of the field."

Old Mill senior catcher Bernie Harvey and senior pitchers Nick Couzantino and Matt Buchholz make the Patriots a tough, experienced team and one of the front-runners for this year's county title. All-county senior center fielder Tyler Young is the last line of defense, and he is counted on to reach his cutoff man. Last year, he went beyond that and threw out a Glen Burnie base runner at home plate in the bottom of the ninth for the win.

From a batter's perspective, stepping to the plate against a tough defense means knowing what he's up against. When Williams hits against teams such as Old Mill and Broadneck, he said he has to "hit the ball hard and hope something good happens."

"You have to know the catcher's strength," said Williams. "Preston Pehrson at Broadneck, great arm; Bernie Harvey at Old Mill -- they're all-county potential. . . . If you have a pitcher who's slow to the plate, that's where you're going to steal your bases. . . . Baseball games like that come down to mental mistakes, passed balls, anything to get an edge in defensive games like that."

Broadneck catcher Preston Pehrson, left, jokes with teammates during practice. Above, Bruins infielder Freddie Steinmark turns to throw to first base.Broadneck baseball coach Sean Tettemer talks to his players. The Bruins have a solid core at positions up the middle.Justin Shepherd, above, led Southern to the 2A South championship game with 57 strikeouts and a 2.01 ERA. At right, Ryan Doot started big games last season for Severna Park and finished with a 4-2 record and 30 strikeouts in 341/3 innings. Below, Arundel's Joey Frykman wound up with a 3-3 record and a 2.21 ERA.