July 7 - Stafford’s run to the Class 5 state championship had it all - drama, clutch performances, with a little luck mixed in - and even Mother Nature seemed to not want it to end.
The Indians knew they could be embarking on something special after traveled down to Southwestern Virginia and beat Halifax County, 3-1, to win the Region 5D championship while facing one of the state’s toughest home-field advantages. After shutting out Broad Run in the Class 5 state quarterfinals, they had an additional week to prepare for their semifinal with Hickory after rained postponed the state tournaments.
Once games resumed, Stafford found itself facing a 10-7 sixth-inning deficit against the Hawks, who entered on a 19-game winning streak.
Then the postseason magic began.
Joe Tolson hit a two-out double to get things started. Two batters later, Jimmy Baker dumped an RBI single into center field and Grant Fuller followed with a run-scoring single to left to draw Stafford to within 10-9. Tucker Sullivan, as he’d done all year, came up big in relief, retiring the Hawks in order in the top of the seventh.
In the bottom half, the Indians loaded the bases with two outs and it was once again up to Baker and Fuller to come through with the season on the line. Baker worked a full count, then drew a walk to force in the tying run. After watching the first offering go for a strike, Fuller hit a soft comebacker toward the mound. Hickory’s pitcher, Jaren Snellinger, snagged the ball and tagged pinch runner Logan Steigerwald attempting to score for what appeared to be the final out of the inning. Steigerwald, however, was called safe as Snellinger had tagged him with his hand while the ball was in his glove, and the pitcher’s attempt to throw Fuller out pulled his first baseman off the bag.
The pitcher’s gaffe enabled the winning run to score, and the Indians to advance to face Mills Godwin in the final.
“All you can do is put yourself in position to win a game, and we were able to put ourselves in that position,” Stafford coach Tommy Harrison said. “Fortunately, we were able to pull it out.”
The Indians had escaped, but their work wasn’t done. Much to Harrison’s delight, his club arrived at the field at the University of Richmond the following afternoon ready to play.
“I was worried because we were due for a letdown. We hadn’t had that yet, and the feeling was kind of, ‘When was it coming?’. But it didn’t come,” Harrison said. “We get to the field and damn if they weren’t as loose as a goose. I said to my coaches, ‘We are ready’, and just told the players to ‘do what you do’.”
For the Indians, that meant doing things in dramatic fashion.
Facing a 3-2 deficit entering the bottom of the sixth, Joe Tolson drove Mike Tolson in on a ground out to tie the game. Freshman reliever Gunther Braendel escaped the top of the seventh unscathed after Mills Godwin loaded the bases, then Sullivan delivered the biggest hit in school history, a walk-off single in the bottom half to hand the Indians their first state championship.
“It was just an unbelievable way to end an unbelievable year,” Harrison said. “This year, the pieces fell together. You’ve got to catch a break and have some luck in there, and we did. You think of the breaks we caught, and we caught some breaks against Hickory. It was just a special group, and I couldn’t be happier for them.”
Sullivan’s game-winner leads our Nine Moments from the 2019 season, a list that includes big comeback wins, milestone wins and a couple other postseason walk-offs in what was an exciting campaign across Northern Virginia.
The magazine’s Auxiliary Nines are part of our NOVA Nine Team series honoring the top players from Northern Virginia. The series is sponsored by The St. James in Springfield.
Here’s a look at this year’s moments:
Seven-Run 7th Propels South County Past Oakton for Nelson’s 1st Win
March 14 - Things hadn’t started well in Scott Nelson’s first game as South County’s new skipper. The Stallions trailed Oakton, 8-2, entering the bottom of the seventh in the season opener. But after they loaded the bases, Tyler Gauthier connected on a one-out grand slam to cut the deficit to 8-6. South County would load the bases again, and this time it was Alex Alderton who came up big with a two-run single to tie the score. A batter later, Frank Huston would come home for the game-winning run when a balk was called on Cougars reliever Mike Michallas, giving the Stallions a 9-8 victory and Nelson a memorable first game as a head coach.
Potomac Falls’ Savino K’s 18 in 1-Hit Shutout Win Over Riverside
March 15 - Nate Savino was coming off a big sophomore campaign, and the reigning NOVA Nine Team member didn’t wait long to also leave a mark on the 2019 season. The Panthers’ left-hander struck out 18 - including the final eight Riverside batters - while tossing a one-hit shutout in a 5-0 win over the visiting Rams in the season opener for both teams. Savino faced just two over the minimum, those base runners reaching on a first-inning error and fourth-inning base hit by John Heltebran, while having 65 of 81 pitches go for strikes and throwing first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 23 batters he faced. He reached three-ball counts to only three batters, fanning all three, and permitted one runner to reach scoring position in perhaps the area’s most-dominant outing of the spring.
Loudoun Valley’s Todd Becomes Area’s 1st Coach to Reach 500 Wins
March 28 - Wayne Todd has accomplished just about everything he can over four-plus decades as a high school head coach. He led Broad Run to the Group AA state championship in 1991, then guided Loudoun Valley to the 3A state title in 2014 while becoming the area’s winningest all-time coach. When his Vikings welcomed crosstown rival Loudoun County for a Dulles District contest in late March, David Gingras helped his skipper reach another milestone, slapping a two-out walk-off single past Raiders third baseman Wyatt DeProspero to scored Jared Molnar and give Todd his 500th career victory. According to the VHSL record book, he’s just the sixth coach in state history to reach the 500-win plateau.
Highlanders Rally in 7th to Beat Stafford, Win ‘Let’s Play Two’ Championship
April 17 - Trailing 9-5 entering the final inning, McLean rallied for six runs in the top of the seventh to knock off Stafford in the championship game of the Eddie Hope ‘Let’s Play Two’ Tournament over spring break. After the Indians loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh, Jackson Kantor got Elijah Lambros and Tucker Sullivan to fly out to end the game. The Highlanders were in the midst of a 12-game winning streak en route to the Liberty District title, finishing the season 17-6. Stafford would lose just once more en route to Region 5D and Class 5 state titles.
Koomey’s Walk-off Homer Propels Yorktown Past Herndon in Liberty Semifinals
May 14 - Ben Koomey had one of the biggest hits of the 2018 season, when his go-ahead home run propelled Yorktown past South Lakes and to the Liberty District championship. This year, the catcher came up clutch again in the postseason, hammering a three-run walk-off homer to send the Patriots past Herndon and back to the district final. They weren’t able to repeat, falling to McLean in the Liberty final, but Koomey nonetheless secured his place as one of the best hitters in the Arlington program’s history. He finished the year hitting .500 with 32 hits, 11 doubles, four homers and 26 RBI.
Willard’s Walk-off Single Lifts Briar Woods Past Broad Run in Potomac Final
May 24 - Aidan Willard came to the plate with the score tied, 5-5, in the bottom of the seventh inning in the Potomac District final against Broad Run. Briar Woods’ left-handed swinging senior outfielder then drove a 3-1 offering from Spartans reliever Justin Rebok into left-center field to score Tyler Beetle from third and give the Falcons their third league championship in four years. Briar Woods would finish 20-5, having its season end in the Region 5C semifinals against another crosstown rival, Stone Bridge.
Brentsville Punches Return Ticket to State Tournament on Reid’s Walk-off Single
May 28 - Brentsville District won four games in walk-off fashion this spring, none bigger than in the Region 3B semifinals. In the bottom of the ninth inning against William Monroe, Collin Reid laced a 2-0 offering down the right field line to score Luke Binsted from first and clinch a second straight Class 3 state tournament appearance. After beating Warren County, 6-1, to repeat as region champions, the Tigers were at it with the late-game heroics in the state quarterfinals on June 4 when Jake DeLisi’s fourth hit of the night drove home Braeden Deslippe in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 win over Park View-South Hill. Brentsville’s playoff magic, however, would end in the semifinals when DeLisi gave up a walk-off homer to eventual state champion Fluvanna County. The Tigers finished the season 21-4.
Sullivan’s Walk-off Winner Gives Stafford Program’s 1st State Championship
June 14 - Tucker Sullivan laced a two-out, two-strike double to right to score Kaz Jordan and give Stafford a 4-3 win over Mills Godwin in the Class 5 state final at the University of Richmond. Sullivan’s game-winner came an inning after the Indians had rallied to tie the game in the sixth and capped an emotional 24-hour period that included an 11-10 walk-off win in the semifinals over Hickory, which entered riding a 19-game winning streak. The state championship was the first in program history for Stafford, which finished 24-3.
Lake Braddock Wins Twice, Claims Class 6 State Title Behind Cassady’s Big Day
June 14 - For much of the season, Jay Cassady didn’t have a problem being part of the supporting cast on a loaded Lake Braddock team led by NOVA Nine Team members Lyle Miller-Green and Bobby Leitzel. But on the final day of the season, the Bruins’ left-hander didn’t take a back seat to anyone. After rain forced both the Class 6 state semifinals and championship game to be played on the same day, Cassady earned the win in relief in a 9-6 semifinal win over James River and again a few hours later in a 6-2 championship game win over Westfield, tossing a total of six innings between his two outings. He also totaled three hits and five RBI over the two games in what will go down as one of the all-time clutch state tournament performances in Northern Virginia history. Lake Braddock finished the season 26-3.
Sponsor: This year’s NOVA Nine Team and Auxiliary Nines are sponsored by The St. James Sports, Wellness and Entertainment Complex in Springfield. For more information, visit www.thestjames.co.
Photo of Stafford’s Tucker Sullivan by Michael Greene