Severna Park’s Jackson Merrill is VSN’s Baseball Player of the Year, while Gilman’s Larry Sheets and Peter Heubeck are honored as VSN Coach of the Year and VSN Pitcher of the Year, respectively
A former major leaguer, who spent six of his eight MLB years with the Baltimore Orioles, and two rising stars who very well may hear their names called in next week’s MLB First Year Free Agent Draft, have taken VSN’s top honors for the 2021 high school baseball season.
Gilman School’s Larry Sheets is the VSN Baseball Coach of the Year, while his ace Peter Heubeck is the VSN Pitcher of the Year. The two helped lead the Greyhounds to their first MIAA A Conference championship since 2010. In addition, Severna Park’s Jackson Merrill, one of the top home run hitters in state history, is the VSN Player of the Year.
Here are their stories:
2021 VSN BASEBALL
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
SEVERNA PARK HIGH SCHOOL
by Pat O’Malley
In baseball it’s a very simple game if you are looking to get noticed by the guys with the radar guns, stop watches and notebooks. Just take your bat to the plate and launch a bunch of home runs and once in awhile go in the hole and make a big league play with your glove and arm when those guys are hanging around.
That’s exactly Severna Park’s Jackson Merrill did in 2021, earning him the coveted title of 2021 VSN Baseball Player of the Year.
Merrill ignored those who said he played in a band box as he tied the school and county record by Keith Brunst in 1998 with a dozen long balls, missing the state public school record by just one, as a heard of pro scouts watched his every move.
The truth is that most of Jackson’s home runs were bombs that would have left any park and just to prove he could smack them anywhere, he drove onto the flag court at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during the 39th Brooks Robinson High School All Star Game.
“It was very exciting seeing the scouts there everyday, but when it was time to play, I just put them out of my mind and concentrated on the game and my teammates, ” said Merrill.
Most didn’t think there would be state playoffs, but when they announced they would take place, it extended the high school season into the third week of June. Usually the state prep season is over in late May.
As a result, Merrill and the Falcons made a third run to the Class 4A State Final since 2015 and the 6-3, 195-pound, slick fielding shortstop with the exploding bat took advantage of the extra time for prospect hunting. Merrill is believed to be the first state public school player to whack at least one homer in four consecutive playoff games.
On the season, Merrill batted .500 (23-for-46) with the 12 home runs, scored 32 runs and knocked in 37 while flawlessly and sometimes spectacularly playing shortstop. Through hard work with friend and strength trainer Juan Palacios, his baseball IQ, dedication to the game, and his Falcons’ coach Eric Milton, Merrill has turned himself into a top notch pro prospect.
“It’s been great playing for coach Milton,” said Merrill of the former University of Maryland and Major league pitcher who of course knows the game well. “He has helped me an awful lot in the process.
“Juan played semi-pro baseball and has helped me with my fielding, hitting and training. We have a routine we go through practically everyday, hitting and fielding. The work ethic is vital to success.”
Merrill is projected to be selected in the second or third round of the MLB first year free agent draft that begins Sunday with the first two rounds and continues through Monday and Tuesday.
His potential raw power with his bit of an uppercut from the left-side is a plus that the scouts like. He uses the whole field and spreads his homers around but he needs to work on turning on the ball. Right now he has an inside-out swing that can be changed to his benefit.
Defensively he is expected to get a good shot at playing shortstop at the next level with his superb actions, foot speed, good hands and arm strength, but he could be moved to third or second base.
“I would like to play short, but I will play wherever they want me to play,” said Merrill. “I just want the chance.”
Merrill, who has a baseball scholarship to the University of Kentucky, has said it’s his “goal to play professional baseball,” and he is hoping for the right opportunity. The late first baseman Jim Spencer was the highest drafted public school player from this area out of nee Andover High in 1965, in the first round of the inaugural draft by the California Angels, the 11th player chosen overall.
Including private schools, the highest area players ever chosen were Mount St. Joseph grads and Chartwell neighbors, pitcher Gavin Floyd and corner player Mark Teixeira as first rounders in 2001. Floyd was the fourth player overall selected right out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies while Teixeira was the fifth, tabbed in the first round by the Texas Rangers out of Georgia Tech.
As the top-seed in the 4A playoffs, the Falcons played all of their games at Severna Park, with four straight wins before playing for the State Championship at a neutral site.
The Falcons were 17-1 overall after winning the Anne Arundel County Championship and posting a 13-0 regular season record, the first undefeated baseball team in school history. Their JV team was 12-0 under coach Dave Ferris. That was also a first for both teams together.
Merrill hit his 12 dongs in just 15 games due to an ankle injury that sidelined him for two games and his big fly playoff streak ended in the state final in a 5-4 loss to Sherwood of Montgomery County in 8 innings. Merrill occasionally pitched in relief and pitched the last three innings of the state championship game suffering the loss by giving up the winning run in the bottom of the eighth.
The game was played at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, home of the professional independent Maryland Blue Crabs.
“Jackson has come a long way since his sophomore season in 2019,” said coach Milton. “He has been dedicated to getting better and has a lot of great tools that should lead him to success whether he signs or goes to Kentucky.”
“Yes, I think he can be a good pro. His teammates are pulling for him.”
During his streak, Merrill first homered in a 4-0 victory over Broadneck with nearly 60 scouts and Kentucky coach Nick Mingione looking on and three days later in a 6-0 win over Leonardtown in the Class 4A East Region II final, he belted a three-run shot. Baltimore Orioles GM Mike Elias was in attendance with another crowd of scouts (approximately 30) and went right to his I-phone after the ball got out traveling nearly 400 feet to centerfield.
Then, in an 8-3 triumph over a good Howard team that had become a Falcon nemesis in recent years, Merrill ripped his 10th homer, a solo shot to center in the 4A state quarterfinals. Home runs No. 11 and 12 came in a 20-0 demolition of Laurel in the state semis.
No. 11 was a grand slam that had the Severna Park fans and parents crazy as it capped and 8-run first inning on the way to a 5-inning have mercy on the opponent rule.
2021 VSN BASEBALL
PITCHER OF THE YEAR
by Pat O’Malley
He first tried out at Gilman School for the baseball team as a catcher and ended up as the best pitcher in the Baltimore area and beyond. Peter Heubeck is the 2021 VSN Pitcher of the Year for 2021 after leading the Greyhounds to the MIAA A Conference Championship.
Heubeck was the Greyhounds’ ace going 8-2 overall with an ERA of 1.20, 101 strikeouts in 64.2 innings pitched while walking only 20 (one intentional) and opponents hitting a measly .115 against him as Gilman won its first MIAA A Conference Championship since 2010, with a 6-2 over No. 1 seed Archbishop Spalding in the finals.
No. 2 seed Gilman went 4-0 in the MIAA post season double-elimination Tournament with Heubeck winning two of the games, including his final start which proved to be the “best game” of his career in his words and those of his coach Larry Sheets. He concluded his career by pitching the final inning of the championship game.
Heubeck fired a three-hitter, the last two hits given up in the seventh inning, struck out a career high 15 and retired 16 in a row at one point in posting a dominant 3-2 victory over John Carroll to send the Hounds to the finals where they had to be beaten twice.
“It was my best game in all of my high school career,” said Heubeck, who came a long way from his freshman year in 2018 when he pitched and lost his first game, 5-1, at Georgetown Prep in 30-degree weather with light snow falling.
“I had all three (fast ball, curve and change) of my pitches working that day. I was well prepared for the game and knowing that it was likely to be the last start of my high school career and it was home at Gilman. It was a really special day.”
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound right-hander has impressed pro scouts since 2018 and the interest in him soared at times this season. Heubeck has commited to Wake Forest, but is expected to be a high selection in the upcoming MLB first year Free Agent Draft. The draft starts with the first two rounds on Sunday (July 11) and finishes on Monday and Tuesday.
Heubeck, who was also named a preseason first team player by the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches twice and was later named the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year (2021), will likely have a big decision to make.
Playing in National Tournaments with the Louisiana Knights in summer baseball during his high school years also helped Heubeck get a lot of exposure and helped him mature as a pitcher. Most of the play was in Georgia and it really helped to fill the void from no high school ball last year.
Gilman had lost the A Conference finale in 2018 and 2019 to powerhouses Archbishop Curley and Calvert Hall. respectively, before COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season after only two games. Returning this spring, the Hounds’ 11 seniors obviously had an added incentive and the player to lead the mission.
“Undoubtedly Peter is the best and most polished pitcher we’ve had here since I became head coach and he was absolutely our leader, leading by example and the kind of person people like to be around,” said coach Sheets, who took the reins of the Gilman program in 2010 and as mentioned won the A Conference title in his first season.
“His demeanor and don’t care attitude are part of his excellent work ethic and makeup. His fast-ball is consistently in the 90 to 93 range, occasionally 94 and he hit 97 one time. His off-speed stuff is excellent. He has a great changeup and curve ball.”
Coach Sheets’ remark about Heubeck’s “don’t care attitude” is his not letting anything bother him when he is out on the bump. His poise is exceptional. It’s always on to the next pitch or play for Heubeck, putting any negativity behind him.
Heubeck was the leader of a veteran team with a keen blend of hungry underclassmen. When Heubeck was not out on the bump, Sheets continued his successful pitch-by-committee strategy that rung up the team’s other nine wins.
Sheets recalled Heubeck trying out as a freshman catcher in 2018. The coach liked his arm and lean frame that projected upper body strength.
“I was skinny for a catcher and coach Sheets suggested I try pitching after being a catcher all my life,” said Heubeck. “I really got into it and remember my first win (2018) by 6-3 at Loyola. I give Coach Sheets a lot of the credit for what happened after that.
“It was awesome when we found out that we were going to play this season after missing out in 2020. We had a great group of guys last year and we were all so disappointed. I really felt for our seniors last year. But this year our seniors believed in each other and thought we could get back to the finals a third time and win. The younger kids fell in line and believed we had something special.””
With the coveted championship in hand, Heubeck should have a special choice coming up after the MLB Draft – Wake Forest or professional baseball.
“I have talked to Peter and his parents (Robert and Elizabeth) and told them there are consequences, but neither decision (college or pro) is bad,” Sheets advised.
2021 VSN BASEBALL
COACH OF THE YEAR
by Pat O’Malley
Gilman School coach Larry Sheets, the former Baltimore Oriole, says his Greyhounds won the MIAA A Conference Championship this season playing their best down the stretch, going 4-0 in the post-season double-elimination tournament because of the “3-headed Monster.”
You say whattttt?
The 3-headed Monster is the Gilman coaching staff of head coach Sheets, pitching coach Russell Wrenn and hitting/infield coach Mark Lemon. Sheets was pleased to be named the 2021 VSN Coach of the Year, but was quick to credit his two assistants for the Greyhounds’ success. The ex-8-year major leaguer from Staunton, Va said the way the coaching trio works together is exceptional and the unity rubs off on the players.
That’s not to say that Sheets is claiming it was the staff that won the coveted title of the conference that many consider the best high school league in Maryland. He is not giving all the credit to the coaches, rather he credits the players mainly. He has been around the game long enough to know that good players make good coaches who have to organize, unite and keep the discipline.
Players know when they are or not being coached well and the right way.
“I think we have the best coaching staff in high school baseball,” said ace right-hander, Peter Heubeck, the 2021 VSN Pitcher of the Year, who was 8-2 for a team that was 17-8 overall. “Coach Sheets knows the game better than anyone. He’s got a way with him to make everybody want to play really hard.
“It’s not easy to do that. The way they (the 3 coaches) work well together creates discipline in baseball and shows the team how working together can enable a team to work together toward a common goal.”
“I learned a lot along the way playing for Earl (Weaver) with the Orioles and later with Sparky (Anderson) when he managed the Tigers (Detroit),” stated Sheets.
Those are two of the greatest managers and baseball minds to ever run a baseball team.
After losing in the A Conference finals to Archbishop Curley in 2018 and Calvert Hall in 2019 and not playing in 2020 due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the Greyhounds were excited, to say the least, coming into 2021. Some 11 returning seniors focused on having one more shot at the big trophy and the younger players rallied around the older guys to make it happen.
“What had happened previously carried over to this year and they desperately wanted to go out on top,” said Coach Sheets. “We stayed with our strengths, the bunt, hit-and-run and the other basics. We played together as a team.
“Our program is not for everybody. Too many young kids want to just hit home runs. Baseball is more than that. I tell the kids that what you do in the summertime is different than what you do here. The name (Gilman) on the front of your uniform is who you are.”
Sheets felt that after their 8th loss, by 15-4 at Caravel Academy of Delaware, they had reached the crossroads of their season at 11-8 overall. The coaches knew it, the players knew it and together they made up their minds, they had to win all their games the rest of the way. And they did.
“We didn’t want to just get there (to the final a third straight time) again,” said Heubeck. “We wanted to get there and win this time. We talked a little bit about it and knew we had to bear down.”
Defeating Loyola, 8-4 and Curley, 6-0, the Hounds finished the regular season with an important pair of victories going into the post season tournament. No doubt, they were ready for the big challenge, knocking off Loyola, 8-2, followed by a 3-0 win over Mount St. Joseph. The stage was set for a really big game – the one that would put them back in the finals again.
John Carroll, a Patriots team that had been playing well in the tourney, was the opponent. Faced with a big decision – go with the ace in Heubeck, knowing that the latter would not likely pitch the final if they won or hold the big shooter.
Sheets made the right decision and handed the ball to Heubeck, who more than rose to the occasion by firing a three-hitter with a career high 15 strikeouts to nip John Carroll, 3-2. Heubeck called the win “really special,” because his final high school start came at Gilman and in his words “was the best game of his career.”
Heubeck was presented with one last thrill to his four-year varsity career when coach Sheets sent him out to pitch the last inning of the championship game, the 6-2 triumph over Archbishop Spalding.
Sheets said “the last six games of the season were huge,” to the final result.
The “3-headed Monster” was pretty happy.
Coach Sheets had his second MIAA A Conference title, the other in 2010, his first season at Gilman when his son Gavin Sheets played along with Ryan Ripken, Cal, Jr.’s son. Putting the icing on his baseball this 2021 year, Gavin Sheets was recently called up to the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox as a first baseman/outfielder and Ripken is playing in the Orioles’ system.
Pitching coach Wrenn is a former Greyhound and University of Delaware player who was a practicing attorney in Atlanta before coming back home to Gilman. His dad is Patterson High school baseball/football legend, Roger Wrenn, so coaching is obviously in his blood.
Heubeck said that the pitchers “really respect coach Wrenn.”
Lemon is a former UMBC Retriever player and has been working with Sheets and Wrenn for nearly five years and, like the other two, performs his role as hitting and infield coach very well.
They’ve got quite a trio at Gilman School and now it’s a Championship threesome.