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By Jeremy Stafford - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Ty Helmick called it a meatball pitch: A savory high fastball trucking through the middle of the plate.
It came during the second inning of an April 18 game against James Wood. Helmick was the leadoff batter. All Helmick wanted to do was put the ball in play.
"I was just trying to get on base, get something started," Helmick said.
When he saw that meatball pitch, though, his eyes lit up.
Helmick hacked at the ball. His bat got underneath it, perhaps too much, he thought. But the blast kept soaring and soaring.
Helmick rounded first base and didn't know where the ball was. He stopped on second base on the assumption that he couldn't have pelted out anything more than a double.
He looked to his coaches. They were twirling their fingers in a circular motion. Helmick's hit had cleared the fences of Charles Hott Field.
Helmick didn't even get to see it leave the park.
The solo shot was the third of Helmick's career, and the second of his 2011 season. It was also the only run scored in a 1-0 win.
"I didn't think at the time that it was going to be a game-winning home run," Skyline pitcher Luke Pingley said. "Later on in the game, I figured out, it's the only run we're going to score."
Helmick's recently made a habit of ripping off consequential hits in crucial moments.
In a 3-2 win over Sherando on April 14, Helmick drove in the game-tying and game-winning runs with a single in the bottom of the sixth.
He had two strikes and two outs against him when he did it.
"I always talk about seniors stepping up," first-year Skyline coach Ben Taylor said. "And that's what it looks like.
"You love seeing a good kid do good things, and that's what Ty's all about."
He's also about combining steady power with high average. Last season Helmick held a .415 average and belted five doubles, a home run and 14 RBIs.
As a designated hitter, Helmick was a unanimous first team all-Northwestern District selection, and a second team all-Region II selection.
And Helmick's game-winning antics at the plate probably couldn't have come against two more fitting teams.
In their short playoff history, the Hawks have twice been knocked out of the Northwestern District tournament by the Colonels. After finally getting past James Wood in last season's tournament play-in game, Skyline immediately lost a 7-6 nail-biter to top-seeded Sherando.
Now Skyline's proven that, even with a couple of lopsided nondistrict losses against Spotswood and Kettle Run, it's entirely capable of playing with the better teams in the Northwestern District.
"We started off kind of slow, but we've played some good teams within the valley," Helmick said. "I think we're turning it on at the right time -- district play. We're playing a lot better."
Confidence is all Skyline's really lacked these past few seasons. The talent has been there; Pingley has been there; Helmick has been there.
Only the wins have been absent.
"We knew we were a good team, we just had to play to our potential," Pingley said. "We hadn't been doing that much, but if we just play to our potential, we'll be fine."
Here's an indication of Skyline's potential this season: Pingley is batting .364 with one homer. David Thomas is batting .314. George Carter has eight RBIs. And Helmick has two doubles, two homers and seven RBIs.
But what has Helmick most impressed this season is Skyline's defense. In the win against James Wood -- a game that hinged on stout defensive play because of its lack of scoring -- Skyline committed no errors.
"It's pretty hard [to do] at the high school level, but it was a pretty good game," Helmick said of Skyline's pristine defense. "We're playing a whole lot better defense, not as many errors, and our pitching's really good this year."
Thus, the recent rise of pitcher Joe Bass -- whose complete-game shutout against the Colonels proves the Hawks aren't wholly reliant on Pingley's arm -- has also been an intriguing dynamic to Skyline's season.
"He's always been a good pitcher, but I think this year he's kind of coming into his own," Helmick said of Bass. "His fastballs are a little faster, and he has a bunch of breaking stuff and off-speed stuff."
Taylor's hope is that the Hawks' clutch play is a good indication of how Skyline will close out the second half of district play -- and when it comes time, begin postseason play.
"It's always about competing: We talk about it all the time, just keep competing no matter what," Taylor said. "We came back for a win against Kettle Run, we came back against Sherando in the bottom of the sixth, and now, holding on to a one-run lead, it just kind of shows the character of our team."