First-year Maplewood Richmond Heights baseball coach Jonathan Webb realized that he was going to need to be patient as he learned about his new team while the players, in turn, learned about their new leader.
There were certainly some growing pains during the 2011 regular season but the Blue Devils would prove to be more than a competitive team when it counted the most, the postseason.
"We put ourselves in position by the end of the year to play district championship type baseball," Webb said.
MRH was seeded third in its Class 2 district. But the top two seeds had the better of the Blue Devils in a big way during the regular season. MRH not only had lost twice to Brentwood but it had not scored a single run against the Eagles, losing one of the games by a 14-0 margin. It was a similar outcome against second-seeded Barat Academy. They fell to Barat 15-2 in the regular season.
It was no surprise that MRH opened districts with a 17-2 win over Cleveland High School but then the Blue Devils had to face Barat in the semifinals. The season-long progress of the team was evident in that game, as Maplewood scored a run in the top of the seventh to record a thrilling 9-8 victory. Maplewood had led 8-2 going into the bottom of the fifth inning but Barat tied it with five in the fifth and one in the sixth.
"It was really impressive to see how the guys responded after they lost the big lead," Webb said. "That was a huge win for us and was probably our signature win of the season."
Senior Kevin Sapp went the distance on the mound and also contributed two hits, three RBI and two runs scored. Brad Swedlund had three hits and drove in three runs.
The third time almost proved to be the charm in the district championship game against Brentwood. The Blue Devils scored a run in the seventh to force extra innings but Brentwood would eventually prevail, 4-3 in eight innings.
"We actually had more hits in the district championship game," Webb said. "We just made more mistakes than they did. Brentwood played a cleaner game."
The one-run games in the district semifinals and championship game showed the improvement for a Maplewood team which finished 8-14 overall and 3-6 in the South Central Athletic Association.
"Early in the year we were not hitting and that forced us to be more aggressive," Webb said. "We had to be creative offensively. We started to hit better later in the season and that supplemented our aggressive style."
Sapp was the team's star, both on the mound and at the plate. He pitched 72 2/3 innings (no other Maplewood pitcher threw as many as 20 innings). His record was only 4-6, but he had a sparkling 1.64 ERA and an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struck out 83 and walked 16. He also led the team with a .359 batting average and 19 RBI.
"Kevin was one of the better players in the area in Class 2," Webb said. "He doesn't throw the ball real hard but he can throw three pitches for strikes. We knew that whenever he was on the mound, that we had a chance to win."
Sapp will certainly be missed but he was one of only four seniors on this year's squad.
KaShon Hagens (.326, 16 RBI and 18 stolen bases), Swedlund (.286 and 12 RBI) and Sam Martin, who was converted from the outfield to catcher, will be key returning players next year.
"We made some good strides this year but we expect to be even better next year," Webb said. "I think Maplewood baseball is moving in the right direction. Maplewood has had a lot of recent success in football, basketball and track. We are looking to join the fun as well."