Postings in the dugout
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In the weeks leading up to the 2015 Delaware DIAA High School State Championship Tournament, Appoquinimink High School Varsity Baseball coach Billy Cunningham was looking for something that would motivate his team, which was about to enter the tournament as the eighth seed.
There is an application on Cunningham's iPhone that gives him access to motivational quotes, and all through the 2015 season, he flipped through the app and chose a few, which he then posted in the many dugouts the Jaguars used throughout the season. Some were about overcoming adversity. Some were about sportsmanship. One simply said “Win.”
The Jags had been to the state tournament before, in 2011 – when they lost to Caravel in the championship game – but the 2015 squad was a whole new team and Cunningham was only in his second season at the helm. Despite the team's 13-5 regular season record, the perception was that the Appo program was still the new kid on the block, a program only in its sixth campaign, competing in a tournament that had been defined and dominated by St. Mark's and Caravel, who had collectively captured 11 out of the previous 12 state championships.
And then there it was, a quote by Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon: “Don't ever let the pressure exceed the pleasure.”
Before the first game of the tournament, Cunningham posted the quote in the dugout. It remained there, in every dugout they used, throughout the first three games of tournament, which the team won.
On the afternoon of May 30, the quote was posted in the Appo dugout at Frawley Stadium, a 6,000-seat ballpark in Wilmington, before the state championship game against Cape Henlopen, a school that Cunningham himself attended and played second base for from 2002 to 2006.
The sign was there when the Jaguars scored four runs in the first inning and five more runs in the third, on hits by Chandler Fitzgerald and Brett Willett and Joe Otto and Thomas Rybicki. The sign was there when starting pitcher Ryan Steckline struck out seven Cape batters, eventually surrendering the mound to fellow lefty Kevin Banning in the seventh.
Finally, the sign was there, in the dugout, in the moments after the last out in a 10-2 victory.
Appoquinimink had become the first public school to win the state baseball title since Brandywine did it in 2002. What made the victory even sweeter for every Appo student, administrator, student and fan was this: They had become the only high school in Middletown with a state baseball title.
“Just seeing the kids in the dugout and on the field was amazing,” Cunningham said. “Honestly, it was a relief that it wasn't a one-run game, because it allowed us to better enjoy the moment, as opposed to being locked in, pitch-by-pitch.”
Before the last pitch was thrown, Cunningham took a moment to thank his coaches, Derek Marshallsea and Kevin Ellis, for their dedication. When the game ended, he allowed himself to enjoy the scrum of human celebration – his kids, as he calls them – form near the pitcher's mound. He had never been through that before, either as a coach or a player.
It was merely the latest moment in a journey that began when Cunningham was just another kid ballplayer from Lewes. He was in love with the game nearly from the time he could first throw a baseball, and by the age of 10, he was playing on a youth travel team run by longtime coach Pete Townsend. It gave him a chance to play with the same group of young players for the next several years, and it became a springboard that landed him as the second baseman at Cape Henlopen High School.
As a player – first at Cape and then on to a collegiate career at Delaware State and then Wesley College – Cunningham was never the most gifted athlete on the field. He didn't hit many home runs, was not terribly fast, but he simply outworked everyone and became a solid, if not spectacular, contribution to the teams he was a part of. The outgrowth of his own baseball career has extended to his coaching.
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden usually dedicated the first practice of every season to teaching his players the proper method of tying up sneakers and wearing athletic socks. It was often met with skepticism and snickers from his players, but it was crucial, Wooden said, to success; having firm footing on the court enabled a player to be better prepared. In the Appoquinimink baseball program, Cunningham subscribes to a similar philosophy, one grounded in the principles of fundamental baseball, and one that, in these days of “Chicks Dig the Long Ball,” is largely an overlooked tool.
For the last two seasons, the first thing Appo players learn at the first practice is how to properly run from home plate to first base.
“We tell our players that if you can treat that 90 feet with the respect that it deserves, the rest of their approach to the game is going to fall in line,” Cunningham said. “As a coach, I have a hard time with guys who aren't willing to work as hard as they possibly can. When our guys hit a ground ball, they're running down the line as fast as they can, every time. They learn early that certain things are not optional, and running every single ball out is one of them.”
On the Appo club, entitlements are not given to anyone, and there are no pre-designated captains selected at the beginning of every season. In contrast, leaders emerge organically, and not by rank or talent, and therefore, leadership is contagious.
“Joe Otto, Brett Willett and Chandler Fitzgerald have been playing since they were freshmen, and they're examples of guys who have naturally taken on the role of leaders,” Cunningham said. “But our identity is more defined by the way we've gone about our business as a team, that any one of the guys is free to say what needs to be said. It's part of a culture that's starting to develop here. We've got 12 players coming back this season from last year's team, and any one of them has that chance to contribute to that culture.”
Although the 2016 season is now underway, it comes as small irony that although it will be the truest measure of success, it's only three months long. The other nine months are spent in the weight room, or attending showcase camps before college coaches, or joining traveling teams in the summer – all done with the hope of being seen, evaluated, and given the chance to take a talent to the college level. More and more, high school baseball has become a pressure-filled, 12-month season, one made more so if you are the state champions.
“Winning the championship brings a new atmosphere,” said Cunningham, who is joined this year by assistant coaches Bill Marriott and Scott Martin, as well Marshallsea. “We may no longer be the underdog, but our job is to get the kids to understand that you have to put in just as much or even more work. There's an added layer when you play the champion.”
“Ninety percent of it has to do with motivation, toughness and competitiveness. If you watch a boxer or a wrestler, they look like they're ready to go before they enter the ring. We teach them to adopt that same attitude. If you go into a game with your shoulders slumped, If you look defeated, you're going to be defeated.”
While the 2015 state champion trophy stands prominent in a trophy case at Appoquinimink High School, the magnitude of the recognition is not what Cunningham is most proud of. When he interviewed for the job two years ago, he said that the greatest aspiration he had for the team was to someday win the Rocky Salvatore Award, given annually by high school umpires to the Delaware high school baseball team that displays the best sportsmanship.
That award was given to the team in 2015, and it's the other side of the culture that Cunningham and his coaching staff are teaching, one that extends well beyond the white lines.
“The award shows shows that they're not just good players, but good kids as well,” Cunningham said. “At the end of the day, I want my players to have the comfort level to talk with me not just about baseball, but about their classes, or their parents. I want to develop relationships that extend to the field.
“I stress to our kids that I don't want them to just be good players. I want them to be good guys. I want them to handle themselves well in class, get good grades, and do whatever it is they wish to do after high school. Winning the state championship is only a very small part of their lives.”