Back in March, when Old Mill senior shortstop Greg Phelps was wearing sweatpants to practice and healing a hand he'd injured near the end of basketball season, he never could have imagined the events of last Thursday night.
But there he was, waving to friends in the crowd at Joe Cannon Stadium in Harmans, a smile spread wide across his face, his teammates gleefully exchanging fist pounds and hugs in the dugout in front of him. The Patriots had just defeated Chesapeake, 8-4, to claim the county baseball championship. It was their second title in a row, their third in the nine-year history of the title game and, without question, their most surprising.
"I didn't know what to expect coming into the season," Phelps said. "I expected to have a good season, of course, but the way we jelled? It's just unbelievable."
Phelps's uncertainty at the beginning of this year was because of what had happened last year. The Patriots went 20-3 in 2003, winning the county title and the Maryland 4A title and finishing the year on an 11-game winning streak. They did all that thanks in large part to a roster with an unparalleled chemistry born from multiple seasons of playing together.
But most of the 2003 team graduated last year. All-county selections Matt Buchholz, Nick Couzantino, Bernie Harvey and Tyler Young were gone, as were standouts Zack Montgomery and David Campbell. With the exception of Phelps, Alex Buchholz and a handful of others, the Patriots entered 2004 with an untested lineup.
It was not a lineup without talent, however, as longtime Old Mill Coach Mel Montgomery pointed out in the preseason. But still, 2004 would prove to be a more difficult campaign. He and his staff had to do much more teaching, unlike in 2003, when they simply sent their team out onto the field. And then there was the eye-opening season opener: an 11-1 drubbing at the hands of Archbishop Spalding.
Two games later, Chesapeake defeated Old Mill behind 13 strikeouts from junior pitcher Jake Shibilsky, and the Patriots sat at 1-2.
But slowly, the players up from the 2003 Old Mill junior varsity -- which had gone undefeated -- began to play better. And those they had joined got used to them.
"We brought a lot of new kids up," said senior Jeff Koscielniak. "It was just a young team that had to develop."
The development became apparent at the mid-season Baseball Factory tournament, where the Patriots shut out highly touted Baltimore power St. Paul's and lost a one-run game to Gloucester Catholic (N.J.). "That definitely showed us we could beat a lot of teams," Phelps said.
It continued from there, as the Patriots dealt Chesapeake its first loss of the season, 6-5, on April 28, and then, after a difficult 2-0 loss to Arundel, finished the regular season with five straight decisive victories.
Old Mill won them playing in the style Montgomery likes: lots of runs scored. The Patriots racked up 58 runs in the games and allowed just eight.
Which brought them to last week's showdown with Chesapeake at Joe Cannon Stadium. The game was a microcosm of the Patriots' season. They looked shaky at the outset, unable to solve Shibilsky for most of the first five innings, and fell behind. But even facing a three-run deficit guarded by the area's best pitching staff, the Patriots kept their composure and kept playing. They played smart, ran the bases well, made no errors, got a standout relief performance from Koscielniak, finally got to the outstanding Shibilsky and took advantage of numerous Chesapeake miscues.
"We got everything we needed to win the ballgame," Montgomery said.
It was the type of game that could spark a postseason run, but no matter what happens in the state playoffs, the county title was an enormous accomplishment. And it made for a special night for Montgomery, who notched the 400th victory of his coaching career.
"This is a great way to do it," senior catcher Mike Broccolino said. "Coach is just an amazing guy. This is just a great way to commemorate his 400th win. Back-to-back county championships. You can't beat that."
Before the game, Montgomery and his longtime assistant and friend Rod Williams could not help but reflect on the 2003 season and the standout seniors who led the team. But now, there was another chapter.
"The guys that came in to replace [last year's stars] have done a great job," Montgomery said. "Early in the season, we didn't know each other very well. We didn't know much about this ball club and what they could do. We got surprised down at Spalding; they whacked us pretty good. But once we found out what we could do and they found out what the guys beside them on the left and right could do, they came together as a ball club. And they've been playing well ever since."