Trailing 4-1 and down to its last out against Severna Park in the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association 4A state championship May 25, Howard's baseball team didn't panic.
The Lions had already pulled out a win in a similar situation last year. Howard trailed Severna Park, 3-1, in the 2017 MPSSAA 4A state semifinals until Severna Park's pitcher, Cameron Clark, had to come out of the game due to pitch count limitations. The Lions took advantage and rallied to win, 4-3, despite being down to their last out.
History repeated itself during the 2018 state championship.
Howard struggled against Clark throughout the game but managed to load the bases against him in the seventh inning. After recording the second out on a strikeout, Clark had to be pulled due to pitch count limitations. The Lions' rally continued with a pair of walks and a passed ball, which set the stage for junior outfielder Ryan Kulick, who roped a two-RBI single to center field to win the game, 5-4.
"It was crazy, I honestly thought I might black out when I got to first base," Kulick said. "I wanted to swing early in the at-bat. He threw me a fastball on the first pitch, but I fouled it off. I had to fight and foul off a few more pitches before I got a fastball I could put in play."
The victory gave Howard its first state championship in program history. Prior to last season, Howard had only won a regional championship once, back in 1998.
Building toward a state title has been a multi-year process for head coach Nick Hoffner. The program was struggling when Hoffner took over eight years ago, but it started to turn the corner in 2015.
Since then, Howard, which finished this season 20-5, has become a consistent contender in the MPSSAA 4A state playoffs.
"Our guys never think they're out of it if we are down or that the game is over if we're ahead," Hoffner said. "When you start winning close games, it builds confidence throughout your group. We also get lots of contributions from different guys. Friday night it was Ryan Kulick with a walk off single, but so many other guys have come through in similar spots for us these past two years."
Another big contributor in the state championship triumph was junior pitcher Gabe Delgado. After the Lions gave him a 1-0 lead in the first inning, he held Severna Park's potent attack scoreless for the next five innings.
Though Severna Park eventually managed three earned runs against him, it was a moment of vindication for Delgado. In the 2017 MPSSAA 4A state championship, he walked five of the 12 batters he faced during Howard's 8-0 loss to Northwest.
That performance supplied him with extra motivation throughout the offseason.
"I really hit the weight room, which upped my velocity," Delgado said. "I also put an added focus on dialing into each pitch and not focusing on the circumstances around me. That helped a lot on Friday. I had pretty good command of my fastball, but my changeup was probably my best pitch. My curveball was going over for strikes, too, but my changeup got me a lot of outs."
Though Howard has now reached the pinnacle of Maryland high school baseball, the group isn't lacking in motivation for next season. Howard will graduate just three seniors this season, which is far less turnover than this past year when the team had to put together an entirely new infield. The bulk of the Lions' pitching staff, which recorded a 3.32 ERA this season, will also be back, which gives the group confidence that another MPSSAA state title is possible.
For now, though, the Lions will take the time to enjoy their first state title.
"The support that we have had and that we've received the last few days has been great," Hoffner said. "So many former players have reached out to congratulate us. Personally, I couldn't be prouder of the team and coaching staff for the work they put in over the past three months. After losing in the state championship last year, to then come back and win it is remarkable, especially considering that we were ahead in the game, then trailed, then came back to win it late. We couldn't ask for a better ending for our first state championship."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Nick Hoffner