When the fly ball to right field landed in Chris Gilliam’s glove Sunday afternoon, the decade-long journey to introduce the Hanover Hawks baseball team to the state championship had finally come to fruition. Ecstatic Hawks flew into one another, forming a pile of humanity near the first base line.
Gone was the shock of losing to Varina. Gone was the disappointment of not winning the Capital District or Central Region tournaments. All was replaced by euphoria and extreme satisfaction.
Hanover set out in February to play and win a state title in June. The goal was now manifesting as the greatest moment in school athletic history, a fitting way to end the Hawks’ first decade of existence.
In order to claim the crown, head coach Charlie Dragum had to rely on a few aces tucked under his uniform sleeve, count on some very young players, and take a calculated risk on the mound. In the end, each decision worked hand in glove to take the Hawks to championship glory.
Before playing for it all, Hanover had to endure a 24-hour delay when Friday’s semifinal with Oakton was moved to Saturday. Then the Hawks had to play catch up for much of the game, falling behind 3-0 early only to tie the game, then watch Oakton plate three more and put Hanover back to square one at 6-3. Starter Trevor Denton’s day ended at this point, as Dragum called on junior Thomas Renfro to stop the bleeding so the Hawks could strategize how to, again, erase a three-run deficit.
Renfro’s role in the game was pivotal, pitching the bridge innings, four, five and six, just allowing two runs. Meanwhile, his offensive teammates cranked it up for arguably their best, and most important, inning at the plate all season, scoring six runs in the bottom of the fourth to take a 9-6 lead. Add the two runs Renfro allowed, and it was 9-8 Hanover when Dragum called on ace Derek Casey to play the role of closer in the seventh.
A walk, HBP and single loaded the bases for Andrew Knizner, who laced an infield single, driving in the first run. Jeff Decker then lined a single into right scoring two more Hawks to tie the game.
Up to the plate stepped Keith Searles, the Capital District Player of the Year. Searles had already sent a bomb over
the center field fence earlier in the game. Oakton made the mistake of pitching to him, and he muscled another ball deep over the left center field wall to drive in Knizner and Decker in front of him, and in an instant, Hanover finally led, 9-6.
Hanover stranded two in the seventh, and leading by just a run, Casey came in to finish the job. It didn’t take him long. Denying Oakton a chance at a tying run, Hanover clinched their ticket to Championship Sunday with a 9-8 win.
The Hawks would find Eastern Region champion Great Bridge as their final obstacle to that elusive state title. Starters Casey, and sophomore Chris Mathews for Great Bridge, proceeded to match pitch for pitch and set up the expected: a low-scoring game where one play could change everything. Mathews was especially impressive, going 5 2/3 innings allowing just two runs on seven hits.
Great Bridge scored their lone run in the third, and for a time, it seemed 1-0 could hold up as a final score. But the pivotal sixth inning belonged to Hanover, who, by hook or by crook, tried every way possible to get runners on board and to the plate. Searles began the sixth drawing a walk. Trevor Denton was next. Denton smashed a double to the center field wall, putting runners at second and third. Up next was Gilliam, the tall right fielder who laced a single into left to bring Searles home to tie the game. With runners at the corners, up stepped freshman Cayman Richardson.
Coach Dragum called for the squeeze play. He did it with a freshman in the batters box, in the state championship game, with the potential winning run 90 feet from home.
“I wasn’t surprised by the bunt call,” Richardson told the Herald-Progress. “We had momentum on Chris [Gilliam’s] hit, and I was thinking we had to make something happen. Coach gave me the bunt sign and I just started thinking, ‘I’m getting this bunt down and scoring this run.’ On the first pitch, I turned to bunt. I don’t think they expected it.”
Very calmly and confidently, Richardson laid down the bunt to the right of the pitcher’s mound and raced to first. Though he was out, his masterpiece was complete, as Denton stood at home plate, safe, representing the first Hanover lead of the game at 2-1. In the bottom of the sixth, his mandated final inning to pitch, Casey struck out two batters, the final one being Connor Jones, the Great Bridge ace who had been used more innings earlier in the tournament than Casey had, meaning the Wildcats couldn’t use their ace in the title game as Hanover had.
Casey finished with 10 strikeouts, allowing just one run. All of Hawk Nation should be grateful for the Friday rains from Tropical Storm Andrea which postponed the state semis and finals back 24 hours. Without that extra time, Casey’s availability in Chantilly would have been curtailed, calling for a whole new pitching strategy. In the end, the Hawks took advantage of everything possible to punch its date with destiny.
That “everything” also included a loss early in the season against Varina, according to Knizner, who will take his talents to N.C. State next season.
“In a crazy way, the Varina loss in the regular season actually benefited the team in post-season. With that loss, our team gained experience, learning that when we get behind we need to stay within our plan,” Knizner explained.
“The experience proved worthy against James River in the Region semis when we led 3-0 early and then had to fight from behind to win. That win gave us the confidence to know we can make a comeback in a big game situation. Against Oakton, the team remained calm and focused on the plan, and fortunate for the Hawks, it worked!”
Exhibiting that calmness, Dragum handed the ball over to freshman Hayden Moore to convert the save opportunity in the seventh. Moore retired batters in order, though one jolted the Hawks and their fans briefly, sending a blast over the left field wall that was foul by just a foot or two, almost tying the game. But when Moore induced the aforementioned fly out to Gilliam in right, the celebration was on.
Five clutch seniors, a crucial crew of juniors, amazing contributions by freshmen. Put it all together, and it equals a 23-4 record and the right to be called the final State Group AAA Baseball Champions.
And they did it by coming behind, winning three elimination games in the last two weeks of the season, and weathering a tornadic storm. Now the trophy rests where it belongs, in the home of the Hawks on Chamberlayne Road.