By ROB WITHAM
H-P Sports Correspondent
The sixth inning.
Peyton St. George will never forget the sixth inning of the 2017 5A State Softball Championship. Not because of magnificence, in fact, far from it. In a fifteen-minute period, St. George got herself into, then out of, the biggest jam of her career, displaying grit and determination that only can come from a champion.
Walking the bases loaded for Lee-Davis in the bottom of the sixth inning, St. George and her defense found a way to escape without allowing a run, keeping St. George’s solo home run in the fourth inning the difference as the Raiders became the fourth team in Virginia High School League (VHSL) history to win three consecutive state softball championships, upending their archrivals 1-0, again, for the crown.
Ironically, a solo home run from St. George and Atlee repelling a late inning Lee-Davis push is how the previous meeting unfolded back on April 28th, a 1-0 Raider victory. But Saturday “mirror image” victory came with a bigger prize, the 5A State Championship.
“When you score early and you have to hold on every inning going through their lineup, and they were in the meat of their lineup, after walking the first batter, it was a mental thing. I got down on myself,” St. George explained after the game.
Seeing her walk Katie Bareford, then Hayli Wagner, Atlee head coach Tom McIntyre, rather deftly, opted to send assistant Raine Wilson to the circle to talk to Peyton. Wilson was St. George’s catcher in the championship seasons of 2015 and 2016. Placing her hands on Peyton’s shoulders, Wilson reminded her of what she can do, and left her to do it.
It wouldn’t be easy. After retiring Heather Childress on a fly ball to Erin O’Flaherty in right field, she walked Lauren Taylor to load the bases. Three base runners, thanks to three walks. The pressure had never been greater.
But St. George struck out Sydney Guess, then falling behind 2-0 to Logan Hawker. Two pitches later, Hawker grounded out to Jordan Durbin at second, and Raider Nation breathed the largest sigh of relief in its history.
“I stopped trusting my mechanics and started trying to throw hard,” St. George said, recalling the frame. “Everything went up, my arm wasn’t going where it was supposed to, and I just kinda collapsed mentally. I do think it was a mental accomplishment, getting back into it after the three walks.”
Accomplishment indeed. In an instant after the Hawker groundout to end the threat, all the momentum sailed to the Atlee dugout. In the seventh, St. George retired the Confederates in order, the final out coming on a fly ball hit to center fielder Kelly Warren, who had the honor of officially sealing another title for the Raiders.
“Before the play, I knew the next one could be it, so when it was hit to me, my mind went kind of blank, I wasn’t thinking of it as the last out,” Warren explained. “But once I caught it I thought, it’s over, we won it, and I just ran into the dogpile!”
The Raiders (25-1) won the title despite not having their best weekend offensively. Friday’s semifinal victory over Nansemond River saw the Raiders score seven runs on just four hits in the fourth inning, thanks in large part to four Warrior errors. Saturday in the final, Atlee again struggled with Lee-Davis starter Kayley Scott, who herself got out of a bases loaded jam to start the game in the top of the first inning.
The game, in typical Atlee/Lee-Davis fashion, was scoreless after three innings when St. George delivered the only run of the afternoon, launching a 1-2 pitch deep over the fence just left of center field. Childress, the Lee-Davis center fielder, turned, watched the ball disappear, turned around and shook her head negatively as if to say, oh, no, not again.
The run advantage helped St. George gain confidence through the fourth and fifth innings, Lee-Davis trying not to let history from six weeks earlier repeat itself. But it did, as the Confederates, in a sixth inning they’d want to forget even more than St. George does, couldn’t find a way to manufacture at least the tying run.
Every championship team, every championship game is different. When the Raiders won the crown in 2015, it was their first championship in thirteen years, sending coaches John Earley and Becky Levy into retirement on top. The mood was euphoric. A year later, the second title, a second time coming with a semifinal win over a county rival and a title win over Tidewater powerhouse Hickory, provided validation that this team was closing in on some of the all-time greats in VHSL history.
After Warren squeezed the final out of her Atlee career into her glove in center, a historic event yielded a historic result. A cursory look at the VHSL Record Book shows Saturday to likely be the first time two Hanover County schools battled each other for a team state championship. Now, Atlee joins James Madison, Great Bridge, and Broad Run as the only softball teams to win three titles in a row.
The postgame mood Saturday had a different feel, as while one team celebrated the ultimate accomplishment, another experienced all the disappointment of falling just short of their goal. On the field Saturday were many senior contributors, for both teams.
But for one player who will return to action next season, Atlee junior left fielder Sydney Kuester, the 2017 title felt sweeter, for several reasons.
“It’s sweeter because it was a county rival, it was more competition (than last year), and an intense game,” Kuester noted. “In the sixth, I kept telling Peyton to relax, that she would be fine. I knew she’d get it done.”
Kuester only has one regret from the experience. When asked to compare the post-game celebration coming in from left field as opposed to being in the dugout like last year, she lamented.
“I missed the dogpile,” Kuester said. “I was too slow.”
Or maybe the dogpile just happened too quickly. Atlee fans, parents, and supporters will tell you, in unison, that these past three seasons have moved by all too quickly as well.
NOTES: The only team to defeat Atlee this season, Warhill, won the 3A State Title Saturday, also by a 1-0 score, in an eighteen-inning marathon against Brookville….three Raiders move on to college softball as Peyton St. George joins the new program at Duke University, shortstop Casey Barrett will play at Virginia Tech, while Kelly Warren heads to East Tennessee State. In their three-year title run, Atlee compiled a combined record of 68-9, going 48-3 in the last two seasons. In 26 games, the Raiders only allowed seven opponent runs this year.