Mt. Carmel’s fledgling baseball team grows leaps and bounds in Year 2

Around 30 minutes before the start of an early May doubleheader with Fresta Valley Christian Academy, several of the younger members of the Mt. Carmel Warriors are warming up for the game in the outfield. Assistant coach Mark Griffith picks baseballs out from an old, pink, weather-worn milk carton and slices them through the air from left field to center. Five young, skinny teenagers are standing in line, taking turns, one by one, catching balls.

About 50 percent of the time, the kids would make the catch, then turn and throw it back to Griffith, rotating their arm forward and throwing their whole body weight into the force of the throw, hoping to get it all the way back to the corner where Griffith is standing.

The other 50 percent of the time, a player might misread the trajectory of the ball, or it might be poorly hit by Griffith, or it might take a weird bounce and clear the center field fence altogether, rolling into the surrounding farmland.

“We’ve probably lost dozens and dozens of balls to the cornfields out here,” says Derrick Mauck.

Mauck is both the head coach and head groundskeeper at Mt. Carmel Christian Academy. It’s easy to see why those two jobs are such a natural fit for each other if you take the short trip down Rt. 340 out of Luray to MCCA.

From 10,000 feet, it would be tough to see where the farmland ends and the baseball field begins — on the edges of Mt. Carmel’s baseball fields are long swathes of tall grass, flanked by lines of recently tilled soil, lined into neat rows, ready for crops to be planted for the coming season. That soil is maybe the only difference between the farmland and the field. Aside from the pitcher’s mound and a few shallow splotches surrounding the bases, most of Mt. Carmel’s baseball field is grass.

But even that, this newly birthed Mt. Carmel team had to work for.

“We came out here with picks and shovels,” Mauck said of the origins of the field. “Before the season started, in 2016, me and some volunteers, the kids, the assistant coaches. We cut the grass and drew the lines. We made this field by hand.”

The field has evolved from raw countryside in 2015, to an all-grass field in 2016, to the splotchy grass/dirt combination infield that Mt. Carmel has played on this year, in its second season.

Similarly, the players have been evolving too. When Mauck and his team of assistants restarted the team last year, it was always going to be a from-the-ground-up type of project. Mt. Carmel hasn’t fielded a team in a significant amount of time — not since assistant coach Kyle Seal played for the Warriors “around eight or 10 years ago.” With no direct feeder programs funneling kids into Mt. Carmel, Mauck and the coaches could make few assumptions about the incoming players’ knowledge of baseball.
In some cases, the visuals were pretty extreme.

“We had teenagers out here hitting off tees,” Mauck said. “Some of them literally didn’t know anything about the game.”

Unsurprisingly, while the Warriors were trying to nail the fundamentals down, they didn’t win a game in their inaugural season. Practices were hard to arrange, too. The Warriors typically practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but that’s assuming the weather will cooperate.

Even when it does, it’s hard to forecast which coaches will be able to make it on a given day.

“None of us are full-time coaches,” says Mauck, who works as a state trooper in the Valley. “We’re all just out here, trying to shape these boys into men.”

Mauck and his team are the kind of coaches who take the mentoring aspect of coaching extremely seriously. They’re hard on the kids, almost militaristically so, but it’s for a greater purpose.

“We want to see the school flourish and grow, and playing sports is a part of growing up,” Mauck said. “But we do want these kids to grow up and be decent men, be contributing members of society. We’re trying to teach baseball, but we’re trying to teach other things, too.”

Results on societal contribution will be slow to come in, but as far as the baseball coaching goes, Mt. Carmel is seeing positive results. After a winless 2016, Mt. Carmel has steadily seized on some success this season.

“I think we’re around .500, maybe even a game better,” Mauck says after practice one day last week. As he says it, an older player walks by, headed off the field to put away some of Mt. Carmel’s rusted field-grooming tools. Mauck clasps him on the shoulder and smiles as he goes.

“About our record, though, I’m not totally sure.”

The biggest reason for Mt. Carmel’s competitiveness is that they have kids who just look like baseball players. Good coaching is important, but the reality is that most great high school baseball teams do carry a handful of strong, broad-shouldered kids who look like they can hit it to the outfield without breaking too much of a sweat. Mt. Carmel has a few of these kids running around, eking out ‘Yes sirs’ and ‘No Sirs’ throughout its short two-hour practices and long three-hour games.

“They really are just great kids,” Mauck says of his squad. “They listen well. They do everything you tell them. Are there a few problems? Sure. They’re teenage boys. But man, they’re great kids.”

Part of Mt. Carmel’s improvement is also traced to the kids that don’t look like they’ll ever make it on to the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Warriors are getting production at the plate from everyone, from one to nine. And on a small team the size of the Warriors, that means that just about everyone on the roster is contributing.

There are still corrections to make. Before that Fresta game, Griffith pulled aside one player after sending the rest from center field to the dugout and started re-working his throwing motion. Griffith’s pupil was swinging his arm to the side too much, so he instructed him to whip his arm up around and through his shoulder, instead of swinging it to the side. Then, Griffith sent him back out to the fence to catch and throw a few extra balls.

After Mt. Carmel yielded the field to Fresta to warm up, the Warriors watched them run cutoff drills from their dugout. They hadn’t practiced anything so advanced, at least not that day.

But 30 minutes later, after a quick prayer before the game, Mt. Carmel was in the middle of smoking Fresta. The Pioneers opted for a pitching change before they could even get out of the first inning. The Warriors won Game 1 of the doubleheader 13-2, and won Game 2 by an even wider margin, 15-0.

“We were putting the bat on the ball real well that day,” Mauck said.

Mauck and his band of coaches are hardly done with their program-building. They want to build more depth, and they want to get a few more games in. Next season looks promising — new kids will be with the team, including a young, rising seventh grader named Landon Byle, who plays on an area travel team and should give the Warriors a youthful pop.

There’s also the rainouts that the Warriors faced in 2017. It took three tries just to get the home opener in.

But Mauck has already knocked plenty of stuff off his wish list. The Warriors have a scoreboard now, and his wife — an art teacher at MCCA — takes photos of the team during games. The Town of Luray donated some old wooden bleachers, too; Mauck replaced a few boards that were rotting, and the players painted them an appropriate shade of blue. They’ve got a small contingent of community support who regularly attend games, seemingly rain or shine. They’ve even got an indoor batting cage, hooked up to overhead cables in the old, aged basketball gym. It sets up easily — just slide the nylon down the cable, across the width of the gym, and players can bat inside whenever they like.

Even when the netting is crumpled in a corner, it’s a beacon to other kids, who aren’t yet playing for the Warriors, but might be thinking about it some day.

And of course, there’s Mauck, ever the groundskeeper, who has plans for finishing the infield.

“Next year, we’re hoping to have an all-dirt infield, just like a regular baseball field,” he says after another cool spring practice. He’s sweating, and dirty, and his face is starting to bruise. Mauck had just taken a ball to the face in practice, some minutes earlier, but he’s still smiling, as the winds of another early-season storm begin to blow the rain clouds into the area. The air temperature is dropping. In the background, this season’s crops still haven’t poked their leafy heads out of the soil, but it shouldn’t be long now.

“We’re going to keep coming out here,” Mauck says. “We’re going to keep growing this.”

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