With the St. Vincent Pallotti High School softball team en route to another victory, a man wearing a baseball hat, old jeans and a T-shirt sits on the top row of the bleachers right behind the Panther first-base dugout.
But Dan Hogan, on this sunny day at Fairland Regional Park in West Laurel, is not just any other fan.
He built the Pallotti program into one of the best in the region before stepping down after 15 seasons following the 1999 campaign. Hogan was replaced by former assistant Paul O'Brien, 38, who has kept Pallotti softball the most successful high school sports program in Laurel.
O'Brien has a record of 66-28 (70 percent) after Tuesday's 13-1 loss to Seton Keough in the title game of the IAAM A tier tournament. This week Pallotti, 16-8 overall, is ranked No. 8 in The Baltimore Sun poll.
The success is no surprise to Hogan, who said he has seen about 70 percent of Pallotti's games since he resigned.
"He was around me for (six) years. He knew what the deal was. He is not stupid," the typically blunt Hogan said.
A high school program's continued success can sometimes rely on just one person: a long-term head coach who provides stability, obviously knows the game and attracts students who want to contribute to a winning tradition.
Maintaining a dynasty built by such a coach is by no means assured. Take DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, for instance. It's nationally famous boys basketball team suffered a losing season in boys basketball this past winter in the first year of the post-Morgan Wootten era.
"I get a good crop of kids; that makes me a lot smarter," O'Brien said with a smile. "I don't have to recruit. That is because of Dan" and the legacy he left.
O'Brien grew up in Silver Spring. He got his coaching start as a teenager when he helped his parents with a Catholic Youth Organization team that included one of his sisters.
O'Brien graduated from Borromeo College of Ohio in 1987 and teaches religion at Pallotti. "The first year (as head coach) was very difficult," O'Brien said. "They wanted coach Hogan. I would have felt the same way. I have heard horror stories from other programs. (But) my parents at Pallotti have been very supportive."
He added, "The first year was the realization of how much I didn't know."
The Panthers are slated to play Saturday at Prince George's Community College against IND in the state private-school tourney that Hogan began and still runs. Hogan compiled a 246-70 record in 15 seasons (78 percent) at Pallotti, and his teams were consistently ranked among the top 10 in the Washington metro area.
A former Panther who played for both Hogan and O'Brien said that the latter is a quiet observer who gives his assistants leeway but can also be loud when he needs to.
"He is a mixture of both," said Tina Donovan, who played as a sophomore this spring for Mt. St. Mary's and has a sister, Katie, on this year's Pallotti team. "He realizes he can't yell at (the players) all of the time. They are sensitive, especially this team."
This year's Pallotti team, for the first time, includes players who have spent their entire prep career under O'Brien. "He respects you as a player," standout junior catcher Christina Smith said. "He treats you as you want to be treated."
Perhaps the biggest change in strategy under O'Brien is an emphasis on "small ball," a style of play in which his team bunts, slaps at pitches while already stepping towards first base, steals bases and tries to score one run at a time instead of waiting for someone to blast a long hit.
Junior center fielder Kristin Fusco, the leadoff hitter with an average near .500, sets the tone.
"He stresses all of the basics," senior infielder Ashley Comproni said. "I had nothing to compare Mr. O'Brien to. We all have a good relationship with him."
Senior first baseman Katie Grenchik was a freshman in 2000 when O'Brien was the head coach for the first time. "He stresses a lot of the mental parts of the game," she said. "Everyone goes up there (to the plate) to do the best to move the runner around and get on base."
Hogan noted that O'Brien's emphasis shows a good coach adapting to the strengths and limits of his players.
In the late 1990s, Hogan had such heavy hitters as Kelli Leachman, now a senior infielder at Furman University in South Carolina, and senior first baseman Rita Horning, one of the top hitters in the mid-Atlantic region for Cabrini College near Philadelphia.
Hogan's ace pitchers in the 1990s included at least two who went on to pitch at the Division I level in college: Amy Salkeld at the University of Maryland-Baltimore and Andi Miller, a part-time assistant this season who concluded her college career last year at Hartford.
"The program is still really good. I am not surprised. Pallotti has a reputation for softball," said former pitcher Amy Welch, a freshman standout this spring for Division III Cabrini.
"For Mr. O'Brien, the tough part was coming out of Mr. Hogan's shadow," said former player Amy Gignac, a freshman on a Salisbury team that is in the Division III College World Series this week in Salem, Va. "The first year it was a little hard for him since the seniors were still loyal to (Hogan). As years went by ... he got much better at talking to the players."
This year's team has no players who are sure-fire Division I candidates. And outside of catcher Smith, the team does not have a heavy hitter.
Since Hogan stepped down _ he now enjoys watching his grandson wrestle and play youth football _ Pallotti switched from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland (IAAM), which is centered in the Baltimore area.
O'Brien began teaching at Pallotti in 1992, and the following year he attended most of the Panther games as a fan. Hogan asked him to join the staff for the 1994 season, and O'Brien joked that his duties included the other jobs no one else wanted.
Hogan said that O'Brien called him nearly every day during his first season as head coach in 2000.
The calls are less frequent now, but O'Brien still feels comfortable to call on Hogan. He said he also does not mind that his former mentor comes to most games. Hogan once again was with the team last month on an annual trip to a tournament in South Carolina.
Hogan acknowledged that his continued presence around the team has been unusual. "I told him I should have disappeared for four years and then come back once all the players I had were gone," he said.
O'Brien has needed all his coaching abilities this season, which has not been an easy one. Megan Wesley, one of just three seniors at the start of the season, left the squad for personal reasons after just three games. Then top pitcher Becky Zanelotti was injured in a game against Spalding last month. She was able to return to the mound last week and threw a two-hit shutout in a playoff win against John Carroll at Fairland.
While this year and his first year presented challenges, O'Brien said the toughest year for him was actually his second season in 2001, because of a circumstance that did not involve his players. That March popular Pallotti senior lacrosse player Tommy Linsenmeyer died of a suicide. He was a favorite among many students, especially fellow athletes. Linsenmeyer also played soccer and basketball.
O'Brien said he would welcome the challenge to coach a college team one day.
"I have college aspirations," he said. "There is no secret about that." But he added in a self-effacing way, "I don't think I have high school (softball) figured out yet."
He also said he could see himself at Pallotti for many years. It would take a special situation to lure him away from Pallotti, he said.
"I am in Camelot here. To leave here would take a good bit."