Titans baseball vies for district crown following key transfers, new coach

Titans baseball vies for district crown following key transfers, new coach
ACHS catcher Matthew Ralis in action against West Springfield earlier this month. (Photo/Mark Briscoe)

By Jim McGrath

Zach Hecker and Mike Olerta have been linked together in baseball for about a decade, starting when Hecker was a player for Olerta’s West Potomac High School team.

Back in the Wolverine days, Hecker admits that he wasn’t the best player on the squad, but there was something about his keen eye for the mental aspects and strategy of the game that drew his coach’s attention. When he graduated from high school and headed to Virginia Tech to continue his education, he was left with an open offer from Olerta.

“If you’re ever interested in coaching, call me after you graduate,” Hecker said Olerta told him.

In 2022, with his college degree in hand and his job situation settled, Hecker still wanted to stay involved in the game, so he called his old coach. The impact of that decision may help the Alexandria City High School team capture its first Patriot District title in almost 50 years.

It was that year when Olerta, who was by then coaching at Bishop Ireton, answered Hecker’s request by putting him in charge of the Cardinal junior varsity team. A year later, the two moved to King Street to pump life into a Titan program that had finished 8-16 the previous season.

The two had a common goal in going to ACHS.

“We wanted to reset the foundation,” Hecker said of the challenge that lay ahead.

The return to basics plan worked as the Titans improved to 12-11 last year. Olerta and Hecker had put the team on an upward trajectory.

But the plan hit a fork in the road during the offseason. Olerta was tapped for a position as the assistant director of student activities at John Lewis High School in Springfield. This time, he elected not to try and coach baseball, feeling that his administrative duties would keep his plate full.

Meanwhile, Hecker was elevated to interim head coach of the Titan program. Now, he was without his mentor, but he wasn’t without a plan.

“We had set the foundation,” Hecker, whose team is 11-4 and standing in first place of the Patriot District with a mark of 7-3, said. “The question was, what kind of house can we build on it?”

The coach began gathering the materials.

“We set aggressive goals, but we tried to break down the game and take it through every single at-bat,” Hecker said.

Other pieces fell into place. Alexandria City had lost some players to local private schools over the years, but this year, several transferred back.

Aidan O’Brien-Gonzalez is one player who returned. O’Brien-Gonzalez had played junior varsity for then T.C. Williams as an eighth grader, but transferred to Ireton, where he played for three years with the Cardinals’ varsity.

This season, O’Brien-Gonzalez has stood out on a roster with plenty of key players. The Fordham University commit is batting .362, with four home runs and 17 runs scored. He has also been a key component as a pitcher, with 22 strikeouts and a razor-thin 0.75 ERA on the mound.

Others have returned to spark the ACHS attack with their bats and arms. Key players include Andrew Church (batting .378), Sawyer McElhatton (batting .366, four doubles, 15 RBIs), as well as Liam Jones (1.24 ERA, 30 strikeouts, two wins) and Noah Sternberg (1.56 ERA, four wins, 26 strikeouts) who have combined with O’Brien-Gonzalez to give the Titans a formidable starting rotation.

Senior third baseman Logan Schmauder credited all-around effort by everyone on the team for the Titans’ big step forward this year.

“We’re coming together defensively and making plays,” Schmauder said. “And, of course, pitching. We found out what we’re capable of.”

Cutting down on “unforced errors” was a key part of the team’s improvement.

“This year, when we have lost, we know it is because the other team outplayed us,” Schmauder added. “Last year, we beat ourselves, giving up walks and making mistakes. We’re sharp now.”

Schmauder and O’Brien-Gonzalez agree on another point, one which draws back to their coach’s desire to metaphorically find a house for the team’s foundation.

“There was an uprising in the culture. We were told that respect is earned, and guys understand that,” O’Brien-Gonzalez said.

The new attitude was put to the test early this season as ACHS stumbled to a 1-2 start, the second loss a 12-4 decision to Chantilly.

“That was no concern to us,” Schmauder said. “With our team and culture, and knowing how we work on little things, we knew it would lead us where we want to go.”

A five-game win streak followed, with another four-game binge after losing to South County 9-2. The season’s top highlight may have come when O’Brien-Gonzalez nailed a game winning walk-off home run in an 8-7 win over Fairfax, a team that had nipped them 2-1 in the season opener.

Now, on the precipice of capturing the program’s first district championship since the 1970s, two things could be certain. First, the team has a chance to make a deep run in the Region 6C playoffs and possibly beyond.

Second, the members of this year’s Titan club are too young to know anything about the long dry spell between district championships.

“We intentionally brought that out in the beginning of the year,” Hecker said.

The strategy has worked well, and others are taking notice as Hecker aims to remove the interim tag from his job title.

James Parker, executive director of Athletics and Student Activities at ACHS, praised Hecker’s work this season.

“Coach Hecker has come in and really focused on being properly prepared from a physical and mental standpoint. He has made a great impact on the mental well being of our team and empowering them to believe that they can be the first baseball team from Alexandria City High School to win a district championship in almost 50 years,” Parker said of his coach.

The Titans face Lake Braddock in a home and away matchup on Friday and Saturday before finishing the regular season against South County and perennial power West Springfield, a team which ACHS, behind O’Brien-Gonzalez’s pitching, shut out earlier this year 3-0.

The district playoffs begin May 7.