The 2017 season could not have had a more magical ending for Loyola Blakefield's baseball team.
After a pedestrian regular season in which the Dons finished 9-9 in Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association "A" conference play, Loyola got hot in the playoffs and went on to capture the program's first MIAA "A" conference championship, ending a 71-year title drought.
The team reeled off wins against John Carroll, Calvert Hall and Archbishop Spalding to reach the championship round of the double-elimination tournament.
In the championship series, Loyola faced Calvert Hall only needing one victory to win the title, but the Dons' nerves showed and the Cardinals rolled to a 9-0 win.
"With our background in baseball at Loyola, we hadn't been to the championship in a long time," Loyola first-year head coach Michael Kelly said. "A lot of times kids will change in that atmosphere. Calvert Hall is in that atmosphere all the time, so they were used to it. Our kids weren't. I like my guys to play loose and aggressive, and we just weren't. I was disappointed, but the next day our players approached it like it was any other game."
Indeed, the Dons were much looser in Game 2, as they rallied from an early 3-1 deficit to win the championship, 8-3. They finished with a 13-14 overall record.
"It's so surreal," Loyola first baseman and 2017 graduate Brent Peterson said. "To go 9-9 in the regular season, go in as the four seed and beat our archrival in a championship game? That's everything you could hope for in a high school baseball career. There's no better word to sum it up than amazing."
The Dons are determined to prove this year's championship wasn't a fluke. Kelly said he hopes to have Loyola become a consistent power in the highly competitive conference.
In Kelly, Loyola has a coach that sees the game differently than most, which is evident in the way his team conducts its practices. All of Loyola's players, junior varsity squad included, practice together every day in an all-out atmosphere that encourages competition, togetherness and approaching every instance as if it's an actual game.
How the team does its batting practice epitomizes this attitude. Most teams focus batting practice on the hitters, with other players casually fielding balls. Kelly uses batting practice to work on his team's defense, having players trying to make plays on every ball that's hit.
"To me, what that does is give the kids a lot more reps in a real-life situation," Kelly said. "A lot of times teams go out there and coaches just hit balls to them for defensive purposes. It's just not the same coming off the bat, and it gives our kids more chances to practice making actual plays."
Kelly also likes to hone in on deficiencies his team displays during games and tries to work them out in practice rather than going through a set routine.
"Throughout the season, Coach Kelly started looking for what was going wrong in games, and then target them in practice," catcher and 2017 graduate Hunter Spalt said. "It's different than some teams I've been on in the past where coaches do the same thing over and over again, running through the same drills. He took it a step further and focused on the little things we needed to change."
One thing Kelly hopes doesn't change is the attitude Loyola's team displayed this season. The Dons were a scrappy bunch that played with a chip on their shoulder, which was evident in the postseason.
Kelly expects that attitude to remain with next year's team, which is only losing three starters and returns the bulk of 2017's pitching staff.
The Dons weren't given much appreciation in the various statewide season-ending polls, and that's something Kelly said he'll mention with his players to make sure complacency doesn't set in next season.
To rising senior shortstop and pitcher Will Glock, who got the win in the championship game, the way the program has begun to approach baseball under Kelly should make Loyola a top team consistently.
"Practicing throughout the year in that big group with the varsity players who didn't get as much playing time, and the JV kids as well, helps us in the future because all those guys now know what to expect," Glock said. "As a program, the younger kids should continue to learn from the older kids who've been in the system longer and I think it'll keep cycling in what we had this year -- rugged players that are determined to win."