But less than one month into the season, Dowling’s team is 5-1 and allowed just nine runs in its first five games before Tuesday’s 8-1 loss to No. 10 Madison.
“I inherited a great group of kids that are buying into the culture we’re trying to instill,” Dowling said. “It’s very early, but if they continue to buy in, we can be very successful.”
Dowling quickly raised the level of competition in the preseason with the Iron Highlander Challenge, which tested players’ ability to deal with fatigue through a gauntlet of activities. And with the rain pushing the Highlanders into the gym for a significant portion of the season, Dowling’s players have continued to compete at a high level.
Outside of six games on the grass, they’ve had one full outdoor practice this season.
“It’s easy to be stuck in the gym and get complacent and go through the motions,” Dowling said. “They show up every day ready to work and are doing everything we have asked of them.”
Senior Colin Morse has proven to be an effective No. 2 option in the Highlanders’ rotation. The Shenandoah commit has 16 strikeouts with a 2.33 ERA in 12 innings.
Last season, he was a seldom-used third option, with 2013 graduate Jack Fant and Virginia Tech commit Joey Sullivan logging 82 percent of the innings.
“Morse would be a No. 1 pitcher on any high school team, and he’s done a terrific job for us the last couple years,” Dowling said.
Sullivan has gotten off to another strong start to the season, with a 0.57 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. Like Morse, he’s allowed just one run.
Sullivan touched 93 mph with his fastball in the offseason, and in his perfect game against Langley, he said he struggled with command on his off-speed pitches.
“It was a really windy day,” Sullivan said of his first career perfect game. “I just didn’t feel like I have my best off-speed, so I kept it down in the strike zone and executed my pitches well. I worked really well inside and outside and that kept them on their heels a little bit.”
The pitching staff has received a ton of run support from a lineup that is averaging 9.6 runs per game. Junior catcher Caleb Beatty has a slash line of .526/.609/.684 with three doubles and 12 RBI.
“Our schedule has been favorable, we have a lot of experience and good returning players,” Sullivan said. “Last year our offense struggled, but in the first three games we had 39 runs. If you have that much offensive production, you better win.”
One of those two teams has reached the Maryland state semifinals in nine of the past 10 years and 17 of the past 20. And although the state’s new playoff format will prevent the Bulldogs and Raiders from meeting in the regional final again this year (they are now in the same section in Maryland 4A South), the rivalry is far from dead.
It will continue Thursday afternoon in Greenbelt, when Bowie and Eleanor Roosevelt will meet for the only time in the regular season. Both teams were undefeated entering Wednesday, and their matchup could help decide playoff positioning in addition to county bragging rights.
“It’s the only time we meet this year, so there’s a little extra importance to it,” second-year Bowie Coach Bryan Harris said. “Roosevelt doesn’t beat itself. They have guys who throw strikes, and they put the ball in play. But I’m confident in my defense, and we’ve been swinging the bats pretty well, too.”
Harris, who previously spent five years as the head coach at Laurel, got his first taste of the rivalry last season, when the two teams split the regular-season series and the Raiders won the regional final, 6-4. But Eleanor Roosevelt (5-0) has lost seven seniors from a season ago, and Coach Andrew Capece said he’s essentially fielding a whole new team.
Led by junior Griffin Devlin, who has nine RBI and four extra-base hits, the Raiders have scored 12.6 runs per game and hit a combined .325. But on Thursday, they’ll likely face the toughest pitcher they’ve seen all season in senior left-hander Conor Craig, who is 2-0 with a 2.33 ERA and 15 strikeouts for the Bulldogs (5-0).
“When we’re going up against Bowie, it’s another step up in competition,” Capece said. “This is the game that kids look forward to all year. Usually it’s two games they have circled on the schedule, and this year it’s just one.”
St. John’s moved atop the rankings and extended its winning streak to eight games by knocking off previously top-ranked DeMatha, 2-0, behind a complete-game shutout from AJ Lee. . . . La Plata will face its toughest test yet when it hosts fellow unbeaten North Point on Thursday. . . . Riverdale Baptist senior and Maryland commit Taylor Bloom leads all area pitchers with 45 strikeouts. . . . Reservoir has scored an average of 11.8 runs per game in its first six games. . . . Since a season-opening loss to Stone Bridge, Madison has won five in a row and allowed a total of four runs.
1. St. John’s (11-3) LW: 2
2. La Plata (7-0) LW: 3
3. Poolesville (7-0) LW: 4
4. Paul VI Catholic (8-4) LW: 6
5. DeMatha (7-2) LW: 1
6. Riverdale Baptist (11-1) LW: 7
7. Reservoir (6-0) LW: 8
8. Stone Bridge (5-1) LW: 9
9. Gaithersburg (6-0) LW: 10
10. Madison (5-1) LW: NR
Records through Tuesday.