Severna Park Shows Resilience In First Season Without McCandless
By Peter Crispino
Photos by Colin A.J. Murphy
Four days after Severna Park lost in the regional championship game, teammates met to return jerseys and get together one last time at the Falcons field. As some teammates rehashed the details of the loss, a controversial 7-5 nail biter against Arundel, coach Bob Felts and several players went through the still-intact locker belonging to the late coach Jim McCandless, sharing stories about the man who was the heart and soul of Falcons baseball for the last 12 years. The locker offered a tangible personification of McCandless presence with the team for the past four months.
One thing Ill always remember from this season is playing for coach McCandless, said senior Rhyan Karr. Losing him was obviously very emotional, but the way we playedwe dedicated the season to him and we played how he would want us to play.
No one would have blamed this group of 25 teenagers if the effects of the tragic loss of their longtime mentor carried over onto the field. Instead, the Falcons drew inspiration from his memory and honored him by playing his brand of baseball, the brand that won three state championships in the last decade.
When we first came in, we were really uneasy with how the season was going to go and what was going to change, said junior Bradley Keith. Severna Park baseball was always very tightly knit with Coach McCandless. He was the face of our program and everything revolved around him. This year we continued his standard and kept up with that tradition.
An assistant under McCandless, Felts became head coach of the Falcons in February. He was tasked with the unenviable challenge of taking over a team in turmoil and replacing the man who had led the program for 12 years.
People said, Youre going to be filling coach McCandless shoes, Felts said. Theres nobody in the world who can do that. That man probably forgot more about baseball than Ill ever know. All I tried to do, after working with him for six years, was just instill his work ethic and his messageplay the game the right way.
The bar for success was set lower for this team than any other in recent Severna Park history. Even before McCandless passing, the Falcons seemed bound for a drop-off from last year. The team graduated a battery of sluggers, most notably Brent Jonesthe schools all-time leader in home runs, RBIs, runs, walks, total bases and hits. Just two regular starters from last years team returned.
We proved a ton of people wrong this year, noted Karr. Everyone was saying we lost three of the best hitters to ever come through Severna Park, we werent going to be as good. It was great how we were able to push all the doubt to the side. Just because we lost all these great players doesnt mean were not going to be able to come back out and play Falcon baseball.
Added Keith, Thats what makes it so special. After everything that happened nobody expected this out of us. Nobody did. And for us to go as far as we did, looking back on it, theres nothing more that I can be proud of than the way we handled the season and the way we came together.
The preseason expectations looked accurate halfway through the season. After starting out 5-0, the Falcons dropped four games in two weeks in mid-April, three of which to county opponents. The offense struggled, scoring three runs or less five times in a six-game stretch. Worst still, they were no-hit twice in four games, by North County and Old Mill.
The low expectations, the loss of coach McCandless, the defeats and the no-hitters would have easily broken most teams; instead, the adversity galvanized the Falcons. With the bats floundering, the pitchers stepped up and delivered a stretch of remarkable performances that let the league know that Severna Park would not be going down quietly this season.
Coach McCandless big thing was When you fail, what are you going to do about it? Karr noted. We had a rough start to the season and we remembered his motto- How are you going respond to adversity?
In the first game after being no-hit by Old Mills Josh Hader, junior Ryan Callahan surrendered just one hit in a win over Chesapeake. The next game, Keith pitched a no-hitter of his own against Southern, striking out 16 and allowing just three base runners in a dominant victory. Next up was Karr, who pitched a one-hitter against Broadneck. Just four days later, Ryan Street threw a 52-pitch no-hitter against Annapolis in his first ever start. Most encouraging, the Falcons were hitting the ball too. Following the Old Mill game, the Falcons averaged nearly seven runs per game over the rest of the season. In mid April, Severna Park looked as if it had succumbedunderstandably to the weight of all its challenges. On May 7, the Falcons capped off a six-game county win streak with a 7-1 victory over Arundel to clinch a first-round bye in the state playoffs.
The way we came together this season in the wake of what happened and what was happening during the season was incredible, said senior Jon Neseth. The way we played through all the adversity this year, the effort that everyone put out from the kid with the most playing time to the kid with the least playing timeit was a shared vision.
After a 10-0 win over Glen Burnie in the second round of the playoffs, Severna Park squared off against 18-3 North Point on May 16. The day prior, many of the Falcons attended the funeral for their friend, Severna Park sophomore Tracy Vander Kolk. All season, the Falcons had played with heavy hearts, and all season, they had responded resiliently to adversity on and off the field. Trailing 4-3 in the top of the seventh, things once again looked bleak for the Falcons. With two outs and a runner on first, Keith came to the plate.
Before that at-bat, so much was circling through my headcoach, Tracy, all the emotions, how much of a fun year wed hadand now were down to the last out, he said. I got back into to my comfort zone and stepped into the batters box.
The first pitch arrived hip-high over the inside of the plate and Keith swung as hard as he could.
With the new bats we have, if you cant hear the ball come off the bat, you know you hit it on the sweet spot and that things going to fly, said Callahan. We knew it right away when he hit itwe knew it was gone.
The towering shot soared far past the outfield fence, extending a dramatic season in the most dramatic way conceivable.
It was surreal, just an incredible feeling. I was rounding third base crying, Keith said. The moment when I touched home plate and pointed up to everybody up there looking out for usit was unbelievable. All of us are going to remember it for a long, long time.
The game was not over just yet, and the team still had to make it through the bottom of the seventh. In spite of all of the excitement and emotion of the moment, they needed to regroup and get the final three outs, a task easier said than done.
I didnt even warm up in the outfield in the bottom of the seventh, said Keith. There was just so much going through my mind. I looked up and I just started laughing because I knew that (coach McCandless) was there watching the entire time. I can just see exactly what his reaction would have been. Coach and Tracy were helping me every step of the way.
With his adrenaline pumping, Neseth stepped on the mound to close out the game and struck out the side to seal the dramatic victory.
That was the most meaningful game Ive ever been a part of. There were definitely more than 25 people on our team that day, Neseth said.
Two days later, the Falcons lost in the regional championship, but Severna Park proved this year that not all winners hoist trophies and not all victories happen on the field. This group maintained their resolve despite the early losses and no-hitters, not only weathering the tragedies and setbacks, but learning and drawing motivation from them. They harnessed the grief, the frustration and the pain and used it all to go farther than anyone thought possible just one month earlier.
Its been a long and a tough journey for all of us but we really came together and Im really proud of this team, said Keith. Thats what made this season special for us. From now on, were always playing for something.
In January, the word loss took on a new meaning for Severna Park baseball. As Keith circled the bases against North Point, crying and pointing to the heavens, the word win did too.
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