Transformed: With new pop at plate, Tuscarora grad Acal leads FCC baseball into NJCAA World Series

Photo Credit: Gary Demski
Photo Credit: Gary Demski

By Joshua R. Smith jsmith@newspost.com, Photo Credit: Gary Demski

Justin Acal will settle into his stance this weekend, lifting his bat into position in such a way that the pitcher will be able to spot the word "fearless" strategically tattooed on his left forearm. It symbolizes that Acal will not be beaten easily — especially since he can now do all manner of damage with the aluminum implement in his hands.

Acal has become the confident all-around leader of a surging squad.

"Absolutely," he confirms, the passion pouring out of his voice during a phone interview, "this is the best season of my whole baseball career. One-hundred percent."

The 2019 Tuscarora High grad and his Frederick Community College baseball team have come a long way in the past year.

After having much of its 2020 season severed by the pandemic, FCC baseball resumed activities in the fall under COVID protocols, divided into two groups that kept those cohorts almost estranged as they trained. Acal was part of that, anxiously hoping he'd get the chance to compete again this spring — to put into action the upgraded toolkit he'd developed almost obsessively during the extended offseason and the fall practices with just half of his teammates.

"We came together in the spring and it was like, 'Wait, who are you guys? What's going on here?'" Acal said. "It definitely took a little longer to click because of that."

Their destination this week says everything about the drastic degree to which they've congealed. The battle-tested Cougars (20-9) have won nine straight games, including three in a rally-filled playoff run that put them in the NJCAA World Series, which begins for them Saturday in Enid, Oklahoma.

Over their past five wins, the Cougars have scored a whopping 66 runs — with Acal, a former News-Post first-team pick, being their regular tone-setter and sometimes, surprisingly, their slugger.

With a .420 average, Acal is the Cougars' leading hitter. And over the course of the season, the trusty shortstop has gone from batting leadoff to hitting in the No. 3 hole. To his astonishment, he has five home runs, clearing the fence in three straight games.

Galvanized by having baseball taken away from him due to the pandemic, Acal has transformed as a hitter over the past year. After living his baseball life as a contact hitter who used his speed to get on base, he bought into the picture the FCC coaches painted of him as someone whose power was bound to detonate.

"Having baseball taken out of my life for a year really lit a fire under me and made me realize I cannot take this for granted," Acal said. "Every time I step on the field, I have to give it everything I have and put my all into it, and that's what I've done this season."

Acal, 20, spent hours upon hours swinging the bat in the offseason. He'd work out with his former FCC teammate, Priamo Lozada or current teammate Lane Gay. They'd hit at Extra Innings in Frederick or a barn in Boonsboro owned by Gay's uncle.

Sometimes, Acal had his father, Nick, throw to him — similar to what occurred in the Acals' backyard when Justin was 6 years old and he was pounding his dad's Wiffle Ball offerings. Even to Nick Acal's relatively untrained eye, he could tell something was happening with his son, who had also enhanced his body to yield the most from a tightly packed 5-foot-9, 170-pound frame.

"I've also seen him getting bigger," Nick said, "and I even threw some pitches to him when we would go to the batting cages, and I could tell a difference in terms of the contact and how hard he's hitting."

It didn't take long this season for the new Justin Acal to reveal himself. Before the Cougars' March 20 opener at Cecil College, Acal — a kid who didn't homer once in his high school career, a light-swinging infielder who wondered "Is this guy crazy?" when Cougars coach Evan Evans informed him last year that he was actually a power hitter in disguise — told his father he would hit a homer for his birthday, which was that day.

"Yeah, right," Nick responded.

But Justin quite liked the second pitch he saw. He jolted it to right-center field, where it eventually banged into something.

"I was just thinking it was just a normal line drive to right field," he said, "and next thing I know the ball hits the scoreboard, and I was like, 'What the heck is going on?'"

After all, despite the guarantee to his father, he still wasn't accustomed to hitting home runs.

Nick excitedly jumped up and turned to his wife, Amy. "He said he was going to hit a home run today on my birthday, and he just nailed one!"

FCC coach Rodney Bennett sees Acal's pop at the plate as a natural development due to Acal growing and continuing his hitting tendencies against the higher velocity pitches of college ball.

"He doesn't try to hit for power," Bennett said. "He hits line drives, and [if] you're good enough, you're strong enough, they'll go out when you barrel it up."

Acal owes his five home runs, mostly, to diligence — which is also responsible for him earning a spot on the Cougars in the first place.

As a Tuscarora senior, Acal thought he'd settled on playing at Chesapeake College. But he soured on the coach and, two weeks before the 2019 school year, he visited Bennett's office. Bennett knew of Acal, but he hadn't pursued him because of the player's commitment to Chesapeake. Bennett had other shortstops, and he didn't promise anything to Acal except a fair shake in competition for a job.

"I definitely accepted that as a challenge," Acal said. "I love having to work for everything I'm going to get."

Sure enough, he worked his way onto the team and quickly into the starting lineup, the only freshman position player in that group. To accommodate for a returning sophomore who started at shortstop, Acal even switched to the outfield — and handled it more than adequately. Bennett said Acal could play short or outfield at a Division-I program, which is his goal after he leaves the Cougars.

"He is a young man that, quote-unquote, gets it," Bennett said of Acal, who is considered a "COVID freshman" because his playing time last year in the truncated season won't count against his eligibility — same as this year.

"He's one of the more mature people and baseball players that I've coached. Typically, our level, they're right out of high school or a year removed, and the maturity process is all a part of it. He's a very, very mature young man. It echoes in how he carries himself every day."

Maturity helped Acal embrace the position change last year, to the point where he sees it as a résumé-booster to show the four-year schools who might pursue him. He entered this season with designs on entrenching himself at shortstop and improving at the plate.

Not long after Acal's homer-happy opener, though, the Cougars hit a rough patch in April. Acal said they just hadn't bonded well enough as a team, and it affected everything. For instance, Acal was even struggling in the field, missing his trademark aggression, erring on plays he'd normally make.

Typically, the Cougars would've had a lengthy non-league slate to work out the kinks in preparation for conference play. Not so in 2021.

Pandemic restrictions meant they were only allowed to schedule 26 conference games, 20 of which counted toward the playoffs. FCC scuffled through a stretch last month in which it dropped six of nine entering a doubleheader at Catonsville on April 29. To open the set, the Cougars lost a tough 4-3 game near the end of which Bennett got tossed in disagreement with some ball-strike calls.

Something about that loss, that ejection of their coach sparked FCC. "There's no question," Bennett said, "that was the turning point."

The Cougars have not lost since.

"I never could've thought that it would put us on a streak like this," Acal said.

Also hard to imagine: Acal's numbers in that nine-game spree. He is batting .515 (17-for-33) with three of his five home runs on the season and 12 of his 24 RBIs. He's also played error-free in the field.

Acal hit a three-run homer as part of FCC's rally from a six-run gap to beat Chesapeake 10-9 for the Region XX Division 2 championship on May 15.

FCC, which has five Frederick County players, leaves Wednesday for Oklahoma. It's the program's first trip to the World Series since 2015 and seventh overall. FCC made it as far as the final in 2002.

The Cougars face Phoenix College at 5 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the 10-team, double-elimination tournament. After the difficult road, they hope they got hot in time to make some school history.

"Our chemistry through the past [nine] games has been the best I've ever seen it," Acal said, "and that's definitely led us to this strong finish."

Follow Joshua R. Smith on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith