In mid-February, Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) baseball head coach Aaron Graves sent an email to USA TODAY High School Sports.
“I am the new head baseball coach and I am rebuilding the entire program.”
Rebuilding the program? How can that be? Last season, Riverdale Baptist was the best baseball team in the country.
The Crusaders went 31-1 and finished as the No. 1 team in the Super 25. They recorded a 97-5 record over a three-season stretch. The team was set to return players including Jordan Peyton (8-0, 1.49 ERA), Trendon Craig (.352 batting average) and Noah Marshall (6-0, 1.27 ERA).
But now they don’t have a varsity team.
Last year’s head coach, Ryan Terrill, accepted an assistant coaching job at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. As he departed, so did most of the players at Riverdale who Terrill had recruited.
“There was no varsity program left over,” Graves said. “You had seniors graduate, juniors and sophomores that were playing on the varsity team last year, they all transferred.”
The Riverdale baseball site lists 10 players on the team: one junior, two sophomores, one ninth grader and the rest seventh to eighth grade.
Yet Graves decided accepting this head coaching job was a good opportunity. He had previously been a strength and conditioning coach at Bishop McNamara (Forestville, Md.).
“It’s a unique situation, but it’s also a blessing in disguise because now I get to put my entire imprint of how I wanted to have a high school program into motion, from the academic side of it to the athletic,” he said.
Aaron Graves works with hitters on the Riverdale Baptist junior varsity baseball team (Photo courtesy of Aaron Graves)
Graves has already started recruiting around the area. He takes a very college-like approach to it: He meets the parents, invites them to games, looks for polite mannerisms including “yes sirs” and “yes ma’ams,” and watches how they treat others. He plans to have the experienced players mentor the younger ones.
Study hall sessions will be mandatory, he said, and is looking for players with parents who stress academics over athletics.
“I don’t care how good of a player they are, If they can’t get it done in the classroom, that says something about their character,” he said.
Graves is full of intensity and knows better than most that even the best of his players may never see baseball at a higher level.
When he was 13, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and flatlined for one minute, 47 seconds. He had to relearn how to walk and talk. Graves managed to not only gain back his strength, but ran cross country and track. He gained attention from college baseball programs in large part due to his speed.
Graves shares this all with his athletes – not as motivation, he said, but as a way to show that what he’s pushing them through isn’t as tough as they often think.
“When I tell them the story and then hear the passion in my voice — it makes me emotional because I went through a lot and I still deal with certain things — they start to get it,” Graves said. “The response is tremendous because they immediately ramp everything up.”
Bishop McNamara head coach Anthony Sosnoskie said that intensity and passion brings out a certain focus in Graves.
“That’s really where the intensity comes from, it’s how focused he is, it’s how driven he is,” Sosnoskie said. “Whatever the mission of the moment is, he’s going to push himself and those around him to get through that mission and accomplish it.
The mission right now: Regain the spot as a top team in the country. But Graves doesn’t just want to re-create a dominant program. He wants his players to be well-rounded on and off the field in an image to his liking.
“I have the blessing of a rebuild. I have the blessing of putting my stamp on the history of the program,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take the position.”