Performing on and off the field as defending champions should, the Hanover Hawks came to Lynchburg, saw their opponents, and conquered.
Never trailing in either their semifinal or final, the Hawks captured their second straight state baseball championship, this year winning the new 4A State Tournament with a 7-1 victory Saturday over Millbrook at Liberty Stadium. Coupled with their qualifying 6-2 win over Sherando Friday in the state semifinals, the Hawks completed 2014 with a record of 21-2.
While much of the typical Hawks 2014 game script came to fruition in Lynchburg, one key added element made life just a bit easier: insurance runs.
In Friday’s semifinal, pitching and defense overcame some base running miscues, allowing Hanover to eventually take, then build on their lead. The Warriors left four runners on base in the first three innings, as starter Grey Lyttle, called upon for that role for the fourth time in five games, struck out five in 4 1/3 innings, two of them to end innings with Sherando runners aboard.
In the third, with Warriors at first and second with one out, Reid Entsminger grounded to short. Josh Shepherd took the throw to second for the force, then faked the throw to first for the double play attempt, immediately whirling around to fire the ball to third to catch the lead runner Zach Henke to complete the unconventional, and inning-ending double play.
“We did that last year and work on it all the time,” Hanover head coach Charlie Dragum said, explaining the momentum-changing play. “Those type of plays are what motivates our team – defense and base running.”
The base running came in the bottom of the frame as Taylor McDougal, courtesy runner for catcher Brady Didlake, scored on what’s known as the “two-thirds play.” With McDougal at third and Shepherd at first after an infield single, Shepherd then started a steal attempt to second, successfully grabbing the attention of Sherando starter Adam Whitacre.
But while Shepherd began a rundown, McDougal took off for home and the game’s first run, as Shepherd found a way to get back to first safely. Advanced scouting helped seize the lead.
“We talked with another coach who said Sherando, against them, they faked the cut (pitcher catching the throw to second to retire the steal attempt) and let it go through (to second),” Dragum explained. “We assumed they’d do it again, but McDougal made a really nice read and just went on the throw. That was awesome.”
It was all Hawks from there, with two more runs in the fourth. The Warriors got their runs in the fifth to cut the lead to 3-2, but Hanover pulled away for good with three in the sixth, scoring in typical fashion on a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded by Anthony Zona, on a rundown attempt where Trevor Denton scored after the pitcher was called with interference on the runner near home plate, and when Cayman Richardson was hit by a pitch with the bases jammed. Three runs, two hits.
Lyttle, Hayden Moore and Denton did the work on the hill, giving ace Derek Casey the ball to pitch in his second straight state championship game, facing a team that mirrored the Hawks in many ways. But Hanover played their game better than the Millbrook Pioneers did.
Josh Shepherd drove in Jakob Pridemore for the first run of the title game, again in the third inning, then batted around in the fourth, scoring four runs for a 5-0 lead. Offensively, it was perhaps their best inning of the entire postseason, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Casey did the rest, scattering just four hits, fanning four in his final start for Hanover, as the Pioneers managed just a lone run in the fifth inning. Casey’s next work will come as a freshman for the University of Virginia, a team currently playing in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
In an ironic twist, Hanover never lost on Virginia soil, both 2014 losses coming at the Forest Acres Spring Break Classic in South Carolina. In the Old Dominion, they went 20-0.
After the celebration and postgame festivities were completed, the 11 seniors on the team were allowed the most unique of opportunities. They quickly donned caps and gowns over top of their uniforms, and, as the underclassmen formed a tunnel with bats, each senior walked down the third base line to receive their high school diploma. Sitting atop home plate was the 4A State Championship trophy.
This impromptu ceremony, which took place less than 30 minutes before Hanover’s official commencement at the Siegel Center in Richmond, was an emotional, fitting end to the careers of 11 players who can always say they not only took the Hanover Hawks baseball program to the mountaintop, but they turned around, reinvented themselves, and took them back again.