They gathered down the left field line for one final postgame chat, the championship trophy in hand. As the Cougars celebrated their thrilling 10-9 victory over Arundel in Friday's Maryland 4A title game, they had something new to say -- something no Quince Orchard baseball team had uttered.
"One, two, three," they counted, arms raised together in the middle of the huddle. "State champs!"
Previous Quince Orchard teams were thought to have a better chance of winning the program's first state title, like the 2003 team that secured its first regional title or last season's squad that lost only once before being upset in the playoffs.
Finding a more complete team than this year's, however, might take some work.
The Cougars had two strong pitchers, a lineup that could hit from top to bottom and, as they proved against Arundel, plenty of resiliency. They trailed Arundel 7-0 after two innings and mustered little offense their first time through the lineup against a freshman pitcher.
"We get in the dugout and nobody is worrying," junior third baseman Mike Celenza said.
Quince Orchard had done this once before, rallying from a 7-0 deficit to beat Churchill, 13-7, on April 23. The stakes this time, however, were significantly higher as the team went into what first-year coach Jason Gasaway called "come from behind" mode, in which batters take until they have a strike. In each of the final four innings, as the Cougars roared back, it was helpful that the leadoff batter reached base -- three times on a walk and once on a hit batsman.
Quince Orchard largely played solid defense -- it made only one error in the title game -- and it took advantage of Arundel's mistakes. Two errors led to three unearned runs in the fourth inning. Three more errors led to three more unearned runs in the sixth inning as the Cougars finally pulled even at 9-9 on an RBI double by Brett Fox, who came on in relief of starter Joe Mattes and yielded only two runs in the final five innings.
"They weren't throwing strikes," Gasaway said. "They walked a lot of guys. And when they laid it in there, we ripped it."
Still, it was a heads-up play that plated the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning. After a hit-and-run turned into a pop-up for a double play to end a threat by Arundel in the top of the inning, Quince Orchard got started when leadoff batter Kevin Collins -- whose .537 batting average led the team -- drew a walk. Matt O'Keefe followed with a sacrifice bunt and when the throw to first was errant, Collins tried to score from first base but was thrown out on a terrific play by Arundel second baseman Nick Palmer.
Just as smart, however, was O'Keefe, who hustled all the way to third base. Justin Handler and Joe Mattes were then intentionally walked to set up a force at any base. With Arundel's outfielders playing shallow, Celenza hit a fly ball to left center field that easily dropped in and scored O'Keefe from third base.
But even as Quince Orchard celebrated its 13th consecutive victory, Arundel protested. Wildcats Coach Bernie Walter was certain that the Cougars' runners on first and second bases had not advanced to the next base before running to home plate to join the celebration. If true, Arundel could have tagged third base and second base -- two forceouts -- for an inning-ending double play.
Although many observers thought Walter's argument had some validity, the umpires denied the coach's claim. And a team that relied on every player in its lineup -- all but one starter either scored or drove in a run against Arundel -- had its first state championship.
"In the beginning of the season, no one thought we could do this; everyone thought we were rebuilding," Fox said. "We knew what a solid team we had. We knew what we had offensively and defensively. The whole team is solid. I think that's what it took to win it all."