Towne itching for 2014 after breakthrough baseball year

Sophomore shortstop Stephen Callahan, who also spends time on the mound, will be counted on to keep the school’s baseball program heading in the right direction. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

To understand the strides Franklin Towne Charter’s baseball program has made this season, one need look no further than Stephen Callahan’s broken nose.

After being the first charter school to advance all the way to the Public League championship game, the Coyotes’ sophomore shortstop took a screaming liner directly off his face from the leadoff batter in last week’s title contest.

There was a short delay, as well as some blood. But Callahan barely flinched, shaking off the busted nose to stay in the game. The play was scored as an error on Callahan, the first of seven, most of them by the infield.

The miscues resulted in a fairly one-sided 9–2 Frankford win, the Pioneers’ third consecutive Public League crown.

But it would take much more than a baseball off the grill to rip Callahan away from the teammates he had grown to love so much. After a 1–6 start in league play was followed by an 11-game win streak, anything seemed possible for Towne.

“You can’t put the loss on any one guy,” Callahan said later. “A lot of things just didn’t go our way. I didn’t have an error all season, then I had a few. It wasn’t our day, or my day. I wish I could re-do it, but that’s life. I think above all, we proved that we belonged.”

In a truly zany season in the Public League, Towne picked a perfectly opportune time to bust out. In a year where a team that started 1–6 fell to a team that finished the regular season 0–6 in the title game, it would almost have been fitting for the little charter school to shock the world.

It wasn’t meant to be, but that didn’t diminish the pride Towne players felt for themselves and for their school in reaching the championship game.

“After the game, I promised the seniors that in my next two years there was no doubt I’d bring one (a championship) back for them,” Callahan said. “I owe them one. Those guys, they went out of their way to believe in me and boost my confidence. I love those guys for believing in me.”

The guys Callahan was referring to are pitcher Tim Hart, first baseman Chris Hartman, outfielders Tyler Keller and Damian Padilla and infielder Elias Rosa. Towne’s five seniors laid the foundation for the program to find success, enduring successive 5–11, 2–12 and 3–10 seasons before the 2013 group broke out at 8–6.

Their hard work and dedication to the program opened the door for guys like Callahan, a sophomore, and hulking freshman designated hitter Zackery Beltran to play crucial roles on a team that found itself vying for a league title.

“The seniors, they never got down or pointed fingers when we were 1–6,” said Kyle Riley, the only head baseball coach Towne has ever had. “Sure, guys like Tim and Chris made great statistical contributions, but that kind of attitude they displayed when things were really rough … you can’t put a value on that.”

The seniors went a long way to ensure that the underclassmen felt welcome and just as much a part of the team as the five of them. Callahan recalled a story when the team was 1–5 with a game against first-place Washington looming. Knowing Callahan would be on the mound, Padilla called up the sophomore on the telephone and made him a part of hyping up the rest of the team. Though Callahan and Towne ended up losing that game, 2–1, it was also the catalyst that turned their season around.

“After that game was when we kind of realized this could end up being our year,” Callahan said.

Towne split two games with Frankford in the regular season, including a 15–1 blowout win at home, which gave the Coyotes confidence going into the championship. Unfortunately, they picked a bad time and an even worse group to give extra outs to, but the experience was eye opening for everyone involved.

“At first, I couldn’t have been more scared,” said Beltran, who is expected to take over at first base for Hartman in 2014. “But these guys, they make you feel like you belong and they show you what to do. We turned it around, and we just clicked.”

Added Hart, who was 9–0 on the season before his hard-luck loss to Frankford: “I regret nothing. We didn’t come prepared for the championship game, but it was amazing how we got there. We became inseparable. When I was a freshman, I didn’t say a word to most of the juniors and seniors. We wanted to change things and set the standard for the young guys, to talk to them and show them that Franklin Towne can play great baseball at a consistent level.”

In a school year that saw Towne’s girls soccer and softball programs win titles, as well as baseball and boys soccer advancing to league championship games, the baseball holdovers can’t wait to get going again. The start of the 2014 season is more than nine months away, but the offseason training will begin immediately.

Callahan, who Riley called “a born leader, the heart and soul of our team” as a sophomore, will lead the charge next year. He’s likely to step in for Hart as the team’s top pitcher; despite the broken nose, he still pitched in relief work after the Pioneers chased Hart out of the game.

“March can’t come soon enough for us,” Riley said. “It really can’t.”

Above all, the championship loss was a valuable learning experience as the program moves forward. Frankford has had a clamp on the Public League crown since 2011, and most of the last two decades, for that matter, but Towne went a long way in establishing itself as more than just another game on the schedule for the likes of league stalwarts Frankford, Washington and Central.

“Guys stepped up and proved we belong,” Hart said. “It’s a team that will win titles in the future, I guarantee you that.”

“Believe, believe, believe,” Callahan added. “I’m ready for next year, and I believe we can get back here. I’m proud to be a Coyote. I’m glad to be doing what I am right now, and I’m so excited to come back.” ••