The formula doesn’t change, and, so far, neither have the results.
This truth brings the Hanover Hawks baseball team to the brink of back-to-back State Championships after scratching out a 2-0 victory over Grafton in the inaugural 4A South Region Championship game Friday night at Hanover.
Whereas the 2013 Hawks relied on pitching and defense just like this year’s edition, last year’s squad always had the threat of big offensive innings due to home run power. That element is absent this season, but has yet to cost head coach Charlie Dragum’s squad, now 19-2, and winners of 12 straight games going back to spring break.
“No hitting, good pitching, good defense,” Dragum said with a wary smile following the game, trophy ceremony, and a talk with his players. “We’re trying just to manufacture runs. We’d like to be about smashing balls out of the park, but that’s not us.”
Dragum likened his squad to the UCLA baseball team that won the 2013 College World Series despite a lower than normal batting average in comparison to their postseason competitors. Success is built on making the lead you are able to accomplish stand.
Sophomore Grey Lyttle, in his third start in four postseason games, but with only three eligible innings to pitch due to Virginia High School League (VHSL) regulations, struck out six during his tenure. In the first, he struck out the side, but allowed two walks as well.
“I didn’t want to walk a third batter, not in the first inning,” Lyttle said. “I have confidence, though, that I don’t have to strike everybody out. I focused with the last batter on throwing strikes because I know I have my guys behind me.”
Those “guys,” the Hanover defense, improved from two errors in last Friday’s Conference 20 title win against Midlothian, to one in Friday’s game, and also managed eight hits, equaling the output of the previous two games combined.
After leaving two stranded in their half of the first, the Hawks offense managed a run in both the third and fourth innings. Cayman Richardson singled with one out, then stole second. After a popout, John Gregory launched a fly over the centerfielder’s head in the gap in right-center field for an RBI double and a 1-0 lead.
Elliot Sledd led off the fourth inning with a single, then advanced to second on an excellent sacrifice bunt down the third base line by Anthony Zona. Jakob Pridemore then delivered on a single to left-center, scoring Sledd.
That was all that Lyttle and reliever Matthew Corley needed, the latter going the final four innings to shut down the Clippers and secure the Region crown. For Corley, it was redemption, after starting the 2013 Central Region Championship game against Douglas Freeman. The Rebels beat Hanover that night 5-1, so Corley played a big role in helping this year’s Hawks do what last year’s could not: win a Region title.
“I mixed breaking balls, hit the corners, hit my spots,” Corley explained. “It was tough taking that loss last year, so this is a little bit of payback.”
“You always want to win trophies,” Dragum noted, emphasizing the importance of the 4A South Region title even though both participants had already earned spots in Friday’s 4A State Championship Semifinals. “There’s no guarantees about winning. I wanted to get this one and the state title.”
The Hawks get their opportunity Friday at Liberty University in Lynchburg as they face 4A North runner-up Sherando at 3 p.m. A victory puts them in the 4A State Championship Saturday at 1 p.m., placing the game in competition with Hanover’s commencement in Richmond at 3:30 p.m.
To a man, each senior will tell you they’d rather chase a ring in Lynchburg than walk for a diploma at the Siegel Center. But first things first: the Hawks must win Friday.
Dragum has a well-rested ace in Derek Casey, who this past week turned down a lucrative offer by the Chicago Cubs to be drafted in the upper rounds of Major League Baseball’s annual draft, then found himself drafted anyway in the 22nd round by the St. Louis Cardinals. Casey has discussed a preference to attend the University of Virginia, where he committed to nearly a year ago.
Casey either pitches the semifinal to try to earn a title shot or gets saved for Saturday’s final to close his Hanover career. Either way, expect the rise or fall of Hanover’s pitching and defense to be the barometer as to whether the Hawks return with a State Championship trophy for the second straight season.