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Sparks' Journey Brings Success To Severn


By Keith Mills

The coaching journey of Hal Sparks has taken him to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and then northern Virginia, to the Irvington section of West Baltimore and then to UMBC, to Bel Air and Towson and now to Severna Park, where his Severn Admirals are surprising everyone but their 70-year-old, old-school baseball coach.

"These kids are excellent," Sparks said. "They work hard. We don't have as many quality players that we had at St. Joe but the desire to win is the same. I really enjoy being around them."

It seemed like another lifetime ago when Sparks was winning MSA A Conference championships at Mount St. Joseph. That was during the 1970s, when his Gaels annually fielded some of the best teams of that or any other era.

Now in his third year at the small private school in the heart of Severna Park, known more for its boys' and girls' lacrosse teams than its baseball squad, Sparks has the Admirals in the midst of one its greatest seasons ever -- 9-1 in the MIAA A Conference Red Division, 13-1 overall with the respect that comes with playing the game the right way.

"If you can't bunt, you can't play for us," Sparks said. "If you can't throw strikes, you can't pitch for us. That hasn't changed at all."

***

Sparks is celebrating his 50th year of coaching. In 1961, he was a graduate assistant to Appalachian State baseball coach Joe Bryson. Two years later, he was the head baseball coach at Spotsylvania High School near Fredericksburg, Va., which won the state championship in 1970. One year later, he took a job teaching and coaching track at Mount St. Joe in Irvington, where he also coached baseball and wrestling.

In 1976, Sparks replaced Tom Rider as the head baseball coach at UMBC, only to return to Mount St. Joe two years later. From there it was on to John Carroll, where he coached the soccer team, and then to Towson Catholic, where he settled in as the school's athletic director.

Through it all, he's won and he's done it his way, often with some high-powered talent like Southern's Bobby Jacobson; Cardinal Gibbons' Gary Cooper; and Bill Gerhardt, who led the 1977 UMBC Retrievers to a 17-12 record and a berth in the Division II Mid-Atlantic Regionals.

Or Phil Pundt, Craig and Kevin Engler, Joe O'Malley, Steve Jordan, John Stefero, Jeff Stone and Dave Woessner, who led the 1975 Mount St. Joe Gaels to an A Conference championship, the second of four that he would win as the Mount St. Joe head coach.

"We won it in '72," Sparks said, "and I remember asking the kids when was the last time they won it. They said 1952! Twenty years earlier under John Plevyak. They were always good, but they could never get over the jump -- same way with this group."

The 1975 Mount St. Joe team was loaded. Pundt was a 6-foot-5, 220-pound flame-thrower, who along with O'Malley in center field, helped the Brooklyn Optimist summer team of 1974 go 72-8 and win the Hot Stove League national championship. The Houston Astros drafted Pundt during the 14th round of the '75 major league draft.

Kevin Engler went on to play at the University of Charleston while his brother, Craig; Jordan; and Stefero were just sophomores, who helped the Gaels also win the 1977 A Conference crown just two years later along with All-Metro shortstop Jimmy Foit.

* * *

This year's Severn Admirals don't have the Mount St. Joe baseball pedigree or firepower, but they have the best record in the B Conference thanks to some outstanding players, such as shortstop Sam Wachs, catcher Sam Meisenberg, twins Ben and Nick Stringfellow, Jake Ashworth, Jack Treanor, Ryan Boulier, and pitchers Joe Kotler and Keenan Schlegel.

Severn has lost just one game, a 13-11 setback to Mount Carmel April 6. Mt. Carmel leads the B Conference Black Division with a 10-0 record.

Last week, Kotler pitched for the Admirals against Annapolis Area Christian School, which finished second in the conference a year ago. Kotler allowed just five hits and pitched a complete game as Severn won, 4-2. It was another example of how far the program has come during the three years Sparks has run the team.

In 2009, they won 14 games. Last year, they won 17 games and made the B Conference playoffs. Now, they're 13-1, having won four in a row since the loss to Mt. Carmel.

Andy Canterna, the cousin of Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, had to step down as head coach of the Admirals after the 2008 season because of job commitments and Sparks was hired.

The fathers of his players were barely born when Sparks began his coaching career 50 years ago, though he's remained true to his coaching roots and certainly true to what wins games at the high-school level -- fundamentals, solid defense and a pitching staff that doesn't walk batters.

If you don't want to know what Sparks is thinking, don't ask him. And if you want to win baseball, according to the Sparks school of baseball, you need to bunt and steal bases.
As Meisenberg and Wachs waited for the start of last Tuesday's game at Joe Cannon Stadium with Poland Seminary, a 10-7 Severn win, Sparks called them over and asked them a simple question.

"How do we end every practice?"

"We bunt," the two senior captains said in unison.

They bunt so much the players wear 'We Love To Bunt" T-shirts under their uniforms.

"Our kids love that," said Sparks, whose team visits Boys' Latin on Friday. "We've got kids who've played very little baseball. We talk to 'em all the time. You may not like the coach, but one day you'll say you played for the coach and you respected what he knew."
Have the players changed?

"I think the names change, the faces look the same," Sparks said. "They're kids. All they want is discipline, discipline and structure and a plan to succeed. Give them a plan, show them how to win, and they'll take it and run with it."

Posted April 29, 2011