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    HomeSportsSchool Without Walls is also without a baseball field. The Penguins persevere.

    School Without Walls is also without a baseball field. The Penguins persevere.

    School Without Walls does not have a baseball field, so its team practices at the Banneker Recreation facility near Howard University. Here, players find a spot to change before warming up. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

    For 24 minutes, the School Without Walls baseball practice was not a baseball practice.

    It was a time for stragglers to file into Maury Wills Field, located 11 Metro stops and a transfer away from campus. During this late April practice, there is no space to throw, no locker room to wait in. There is, instead, a rusty shipping container to change behind, two open patches of grass to loiter on and one coveted spot in the batting cage, which junior outfielder Sean Aldridge has taken.

    Across the track, freshman outfielder Derrick Deal Jr. pressed against the backstop, watching as a middle school game, which had been double-booked during their practice time, entered the final inning.

    “They better get off soon,” assistant Jack Ewart said.

    At 5:24, they do. Still, Kip Smith, the Walls head coach, won’t arrive for another 50 minutes. Ewart and fellow assistant James Jackson have assumed leadership for the first 75 minutes while Smith is several miles away, leading Walls’s softball team following its coach’s preseason resignation.

    None of these oddities seem to throw the Penguins off track.

    Their buzz is from the previous day’s game against Jackson-Reed, the Goliath of D.C. baseball with an unbeaten streak against the city’s fellow public schools that spans almost 29 years. The day before, the Penguins nearly snapped it.

    They don’t talk about the late errors that turned a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 loss. They’re proud of the timely pitching that gave them faith. They’re optimists. It’s a characteristic they have had to develop without reliable facilities and a reputation as also-rans. On Thursday, Walls (18-4) will have another shot at Jackson-Reed (21-6) in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game.

    “This year,” Aldridge said, “we actually believe we can do it.”

    Walls, along with nearly every public school in the District (including Jackson-Reed), has fundamental barriers in facilities, resources and circumstances to overcome. But the gap between their programs and those in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, several D.C. coaches believe, is finally starting to shrink.

    Walls, long one of those frustrated D.C. public schools, is breaking through.

    Logistics, funding don’t come easy

    Can you get to Maury Wills Field by 5 p.m.?

    Those students who departed right at the 3:30 bell did. Those who had to meet with teachers after school did not. Two freshmen who voyaged from Bard, a public application school in Southeast Washington’s Congress Heights neighborhood, made it under the wire. Bard, which also has no athletic facilities, lacks a baseball team, so the pair have joined the Penguins.

    Though School Without Walls is located on George Washington’s campus, the university does not allow the high school to use its athletic facilities. The soccer teams practice at the Fields at RFK Campus in Northeast Washington. The three basketball teams (boys’ junior varsity and varsity and girls’ varsity) share one court.

    The school’s athletic department receives just $12,000 from the city. Each academic year, excess costs for travel and facilities total between $20,000 and $30,000. The baseball team is almost entirely supported through fundraising.

    “It is what it is,” senior outfielder Eliav Brooks-Rubin said. “Coming to Walls, they’re very clear. You know what you’re getting into. But I wouldn’t say it’s easy.”

    Earlier this year, students set up a bench press in the janitor’s closet before several faculty members shut that down. When a Walls assistant played a decade ago, the team would run up stairs while holding textbooks for strength and conditioning.

    Over the past few years, the Penguins have raised additional money for trips to batting cages and gyms. But everyday travel remains the biggest issue. Their sports schedule cuts into academic schedules and often adds stress to a school with intense academic rigor.

    “There’s a different type of student-athlete here,” Smith said. “I always say my kids know the last digit of pi, but the simplest things on the field can be the hardest to grasp.”

    Since the Penguins come from all around the city, some get home at 8 p.m.; for others, it’s closer to 9. Most students at Walls have two to three hours of homework each night. Most days, junior Stephen Showalter said, he falls asleep around 1 a.m.

    “I don’t have dinner with my family a lot,” he said.

    Eleven years ago, Walls hired him as its athletic director. He has since also become its baseball coach (with a $3,000 stipend) and its softball coach (on a volunteer basis) and absorbed enrollment duties and other tasks around the building. He has two children, ages 6 and 8.

    Somehow, he makes time to check in on his athletes, too. It’s emblematic of the Penguins’ approach, focused on doing what they can with what they have. His team, even behind his usual soft-spoken approach, notices.

    “It feels like he took me under his wing,” Showalter said. “But if you ask basically anyone else here, they’ll tell you the same thing.”

    When Smith, 40, was growing up, almost every pocket of D.C. had a Little League team. But as football and basketball became more popular, baseball gradually phased out. Only two Little League programs never shut down: Capitol City and Northwest — which, given their locations in Northwest, consistently fed the majority of their players to Jackson-Reed.

    Over the past decade, there has been a push to return Little League teams to the city. Several years ago, Mamie Johnson, Showalter’s Little League team that was founded in 2015 in Southeast, bested the usual Northwest powerhouses and became the first predominantly Black team to reach the Mid-Atlantic regional, one step short of the Little League World Series.

    Walls, which takes students from around the city, has a balanced mix of Little League programs on its team.

    “The goal,” Smith said, “is for every school in D.C. to have a chance.”

    Even at rival Jackson-Reed, it’s far from a perfect setup. Last year, its batting cages were cut down by the city. When it rains, it takes the Tigers three hours to repair their grass fields, which are of lower quality than the turf fields that suburban public and private schools use.

    “The main thing that keeps us afloat is our guys are hungry — it may take us three to four hours of hard work in the cold [repairing our fields] on a Sunday to get a game in on Monday,” Jackson-Reed Coach Henry Martinez said. “As a public school, we have to do things that much better to win.”

    On Thursday, though, the Penguins will be underdogs. Senior Emmitt Gerstein said their team isn’t the biggest and certainly doesn’t look the best “on paper.”

    “It’s mostly a talent hurdle. Jackson-Reed has, what, four times the amount of students that we do? And obviously they have their home field,” Gerstein said. “There’s nothing we can do about either of those things.”

    He said what they lack in Division I talent they make up for in depth and belief — more, he said, than they’ve ever had.

    Brooks-Rubin, his senior teammate, agrees. Sophomore Theo Weller gives the team a bona fide star in the middle of the lineup; he’s hitting .481. On the mound, they’ve got a deep stable of arms, led by senior right-hander Noah Pershing, whose ERA sits at 3.50 against their top opponents this season.

    “We’ve just got a belief in ourselves that we just haven’t had in previous years,” Brooks-Rubin said. “We’re making plays we aren’t even making in practice. We cut off all our baserunning mistakes. Our bench energy has been something we have been trying to improve — and we finally have.”

    They aren’t mistaking confidence for clairvoyance. But they’ve fared well against common opponents, even defeating private school Sidwell Friends, which Jackson-Reed fell to.

    Brooks-Rubin thought back to his first practice freshman year. The first thing the seniors told him: The goal, every year, is to beat Jackson-Reed.

    “It would mean everything to me,” Brooks-Rubin said. “It’s never been done in school history. To be part of that history would mean everything. I really do love this school. It’s been the perfect place for me. To be able to leave that mark would be special.”

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