By Keith Mills
The question has been gnawing at area baseball fans for the last two weeks. Is 31-1 better than 32-0?
Is the 2005 Calvert Hall baseball team, a team which lost its first game of the year and steamrolled through its next 31, better than this year's club, which beat St. Mary's, 10-7, on March 14 and hasn't lost since?
The Calvert Hall Cardinals are ranked 12th in this week's USA Today national high school poll. (Courtesy of Calvert Hall Athletic Department)
"That's a great question," said Calvert Hall coach Lou Eckerl. "There's no question there are comparisons but that's a tough one. I really don't know."
What we do know is this: Calvert Hall's class of 2007 is remarkably similar to its class of '05, a team that lost to Moore Catholic High of Staten Island, N.Y., in the first game of the year and then ripped off 31 straight and won the MIAA A Conference championship. That club destroyed opposing pitching staffs, hitting .404 as a team with 31 home runs and setting a state record for most wins in a season with 31.
This year's team broke that record last week with a 9-2 win over Mount St. Joseph that sent the Cardinals into Wednesday's MIAA A Conference championship. This unit hit .390 as a team with 27 home runs.
The '05 team featured a lineup that averaged 10 runs per game. Joe Velleggia, a 6-foot-6 catcher, hit .485 with 11 home runs and 52 RBIs. Centerfielder Mike Newton hit .421 with five home runs and 13 doubles while third baseman Scott Krieger hit .514 with nine home runs and 54 runs scored. Rob Waskiewicz was unbeaten and anchored a pitching staff that included Tim Sexton and Mike Stangroom.
Velleggia is now a sophomore at Old Dominion, Newton plays football at the University of Buffalo, Krieger has 20 home runs for George Mason and Waskiewicz is a redshirt freshman at Virginia Tech. Sexton went to George Washington while Stangroom just finished his sophomore year for Ursinus.
The '07 team is led by sophomore Pat Blair, a .500 hitter who is already a legitimate major league prospect and one of the best players in Calvert Hall's storied history. "He's the best player I've ever coached," Eckerl said.
Reid Chenworth bats second, Kevin Lingerman third and Mike Guthridge cleanup. Chenworth is hitting .488 with 38 RBIs, Lingerman .392 with 47 RBIs and Guthridge .435 with four home runs and 38 RBIs. Lingerman is also the anchor of the Cardinals' pitching staff with seven wins, four saves and a 1.49 ERA.
"He's Mr. Clutch," Eckerl said. "The bigger the situation, the bigger the game, the better he is. We're playing [Archbishop] Spalding or St. Joe and he's 3-for-4 with a double and three RBIs."
Lingerman pitched a no-hitter in a 1-0 win against Notre Dame Academy of Virginia and also has wins over Spalding, St. Joe and Riverdale Baptist, Prince George's County's private school powerhouse. Lingerman is just a junior while Guthridge is going to Hofstra and Chenworth to Maryland.
So which team is better? Eckerl isn't taking the bait.
"The two teams do a lot of the same things," Eckerl said. "I think defensively we're a little better this year but I don't think we're as powerful as two years ago. We have a little more pitching depth on this team, though Waskiewicz was 10-0 and we had a great closer in Stangroom."
On Monday morning, when most Calvert Hall students hit the snooze button at 7 a.m. for 15 more minutes of sleep, Chenworth, Guthridge and the Cardinals team were putting on their batting gloves and helmets for another session of practice.
A.M. hitting has meant P.M. domination the last three years to the aluminum-on-horsehide tune of 90 wins and just nine losses, eight that came last year. The Cardinals are ranked 12th in this week's USA Today national high school poll and were one win away from a third straight conference championship.
"The guys that come back tell us they are prepared when they get to college,” Eckerl said. “Sometimes they say we're a lot harder here. Our position players have to be here at 7 in the morning to hit; sometimes that's not easy.”
The '05 success has certainly carried over to the '07 season, though Eckerl marvels at how relaxed his team has been throughout this year's unbeaten season.
"I don't know if they comprehend the magnitude of what they've done," Eckerl said. "How good is this team? Is it the best ever here? I don't know. But what this team has done will always be talked about. Whenever these guys get together, they will always talk about the 2007 season."
Eckerl graduated from Cardinal Gibbons in 1970. In 1976 he replaced Brian Moorehouse as Gibbons baseball coach, beginning a career at the West Baltimore school that featured 49 wins and the 1982 MSA A Conference championship.
"We lost the championship game to McDonogh the year before," said Eckerl, who is the only coach to win MIAA A Conference baseball titles at two schools. "Rich Bosley beat us but we bounced back and really had a great year."
Gibbons finished 18-1-1 in '82, beating Charlie Sullivan's Poly Engineers for the title. Eckerl took over as Calvert Hall's athletic director in 1983. In '94 he replaced Bill Mackley as the school's football coach. In '98 he turned that job over to Jay Robinson and in 2002 he took over the Cardinals' baseball program, replacing Joe "Snooky" Binder, who won 462 games and 11 championships.
"When I replaced Snooky, the pressure was brutal," Eckerl said. "It was all self-imposed. The first couple of years I felt really good when we made the playoffs and the championship. But St. Paul's beat us with Steve Johnson and then St. Joe got us. I felt I was going to get the rap that I can't win the big one. The pressure was unbearable."
That changed two years ago when the Cardinals annihilated a very good league, beating St. Joe, 12-2, in the title game. Last year they finished 27-8, rebounding from a loss to Gilman in the playoffs to beat the Greyhounds for their second straight championship.
"When we won two years ago and went 31-1, the pressure all but disappeared," Eckerl said. "The alumni support has been great. Joe Binder's been great. He comes back to help with our camps. It was tough taking over for someone like that but now things are going really well."
How well? The baseball program did not lose a game this year. Varsity went 32-0, junior varsity went 26-0 and won a third straight conference title and the freshman/sophomore team finished 16-0.
"Respect the game. That's what we do," Eckerl said. "That philosophy's always been here. Walter Youse, Joe Binder. They coached that and so do we."
He doesn't have to convince his coaching staff, which features a half-dozen Calvert Hall grads and a pair of alums also involved in the school's administration. Brooks Kerr has been with Eckerl all six years and is one of the school's guidance counselors, while junior varsity coach Chris Bengel is the admissions director. Freshman/sophomore coach Dustin Sparks played at Calvert Hall as did varsity assistants Tim Ford and Josh Itzoe.
"We always tell our kids to respect the game," Eckerl said. "Give it everything you have for as long as you have or we'll find someone that will. And they've bought into it."
Eckerl spends much of his time on weekends scouring the local sandlots for the Calvert Hall players of tomorrow. But Friday night, he and his wife Mary will take a seat in the stands at Paul Angelo Russo Stadium. It won't be for graduation but a lacrosse game. Matt Eckerl was an All-Metro football and basketball player at Calvert Hall and now is a senior face-off specialist for Towson University's men's lacrosse team. Friday he'll play in the North-South Collegiate All-Star Game at his alma mater.
"Just be supportive and be a dad, that's all I've tried to do since he's been at Towson," Lou Eckerl said. "Ever since he's been 4 or 5 years old, he's been the ballboy. And he was on the sidelines with me when I was coaching football. I really think he's gained a great perspective about the game."
So has a pair of Eckerl's current players: Chenworth and Guthridge.
"I was getting ready to give a pregame speech, I start talking and all of a sudden Reid and Mike are doing my speech,” Eckerl said. “They're talking about how we need to stay focused, take care of business, show the other team how we're a step above everybody else. It was amazing. It's great to have that kind of leadership. You always wonder if you have that kind of an impact on your players." Eckerl feels Chenworth and Guthridge will make good coaches one day. So will Matt Eckerl.
"He's been around some great coaches, Augie Miceli, Joe Binder, and he really understands the game,” Lou Eckerl said. “We'd be watching film when he was a kid and he'd tell me we need to run a reverse here or a screen there. I'd just laugh."
And Friday he'll be smiling, unable to hide the parental pride.
"How about that?" he said. "My son began his career at Calvert Hall and he'll end his college career at Calvert Hall."
Issue 2.21: May 24, 2007