Defense Leads Thomas Johnson Baseball to State Title

TJ Baseball Title Pic

The foundation for Thomas Johnson's run the MPSSAA 3A baseball state championship was laid at the end of the program's 2017 season.

The Patriots enjoyed a deep run in the 2017 state playoffs, topping South Hagerstown and Linganore before bowing out in the 3A West regional final to Poolesville, the eventual state champion. When the team got back to Thomas Johnson, 2017 senior Mark Sanino took a few of the younger players to their home dugout.

"He said something to the effect of 'I hope you all don't have to end your senior season like this,'" head coach Billy Gross said. "That group came up to me in the coming weeks and again said something to the extent of 'Coach, we don't want to have the same feeling the seniors did.' Once I heard that I had a good feeling we would be very competitive this coming year."

The Patriots worked hard throughout the offseason to avoid a similar fate this season, and that dedication was rewarded when center fielder Jack Maruskin caught the final out of the state title game against Huntingtown, giving the team a 3-2 victory. It's Thomas Johnson's first state title in baseball since 2002.

This year's group was a blend of classes- the Patriots were led by six seniors, but also started freshman Jacob Orr at shortstop, and had four sophomores playing significant roles. Together, the group formed a sensational defense that the pitching staff, led by seniors Gabe Stitley and Tyler Rhoderick, benefited from tremendously.

"We stressed to our pitchers all year to simply throw strikes because we felt extremely confident that our defense would make the plays behind them," Gross said. "I would tell our pitchers I'd rather see our opponents get 15-20 hits against us than see you walk two or three guys in the game."

That defense was on display in the postseason. Gross said the biggest reason for the Patriots' 12-11 win against Manchester Valley in the 3A West regional title game was their defense. A couple errors by Manchester Valley extended rallies for the Patriots, while their defense helped slow the Mavericks' attack.

Thomas Johnson's defense was also key in the state championship. Huntingtown managed to get runners on base in the fifth and sixth innings, but both rallies were stopped short after double plays.

"The game itself was definitely a pitching duel where you couldn't make a defensive mistake or it could hurt you," Gross said. "We scored two in the first, with one of them coming on a throwing error when they attempted to turn two, and then manufactured a run in the second. After that Huntingtown really shut us down, but Tyler Rhoderick was able to keep them off-balance."

It was a fitting finish to a fantastic season for Rhoderick, who notched six wins and threw to a 1.83 ERA. Stitley also had a tremendous year on the mound for the Patriots, posting a 2.52 ERA over 50 innings pitched.

The team was paced at the plate by Orr, who batted .432 with 29 runs scored and 13 RBI's in his first season of high school baseball. Maruskin had a breakout year, batting .395 with 23 runs scored and 22 RBI's. Senior catcher Jacob Berry batted .354 with 31 runs scored and four home runs, while Stitley hit .348 with 23 RBI's. Thomas Johnson's attack was rounded out by senior first baseman Brett Coughlin, who batted .328 with 22 RBI's.

Since the team's championship triumph, Gross says he's heard a lot of people describe it as the end of a drought for the program. Gross doesn't see it that way because of how difficult it is to win a state championship, which has enhanced his ability to enjoy his team's triumph.

"If you're fortunate enough to get a bye it takes five wins in a row to win it all, sometimes it takes six if you don't have that bye. You can ask any high school coach, college coach, or pro coach, and I'm pretty certain all would agree that winning five or more in a row is no easy feat, and you need to have some things either fall into place or catch some luck along the way," Gross said. "As far as my players, I know a lot more people at school are talking about baseball now, and at graduation parties for my seniors, they're getting recognized by friends and parents, even if the party isn't for them, so that's pretty cool."
June 1st, 2018By: Wick Eisenberg

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