By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Win or lose, the outcome of Tuesday's Northwestern District baseball tournament championship game didn't mean much for Sherando in terms of seeding for next week's Region II tournament. But that didn't mean that the top-seeded Warriors didn't want that title of back-to-back district tournament champions.
Sherando did to No. 2 Millbrook on Tuesday what it had done to everyone else in the Northwestern District throughout the season, jumping on the Pioneers early with clutch hitting and rolling to a 10-1 victory.
"It still means a lot to us because we want that district tournament. We want to say we're champions of the Northwestern District," Warriors junior Chase Smallwood said. "Even though they're going to regionals and we're going to regionals, they're our biggest rivals, it's a big game no matter what. We were all coming in here focused non-stop."
The Warriors (20-1) took advantage of a Millbrook error in the bottom of the first inning to send four runs to the plate, and senior starting pitcher John Bentley held off the Pioneers during a complete-game effort in which he allowed just one unearned run on four hits while striking out seven.
Millbrook, which threw ace Daniel Nawrocki in Monday's semifinal win over Skyline, turned to freshman Trey Braithwaite on Tuesday, and Sherando's potent lineup roughed up Braithwaite for six runs -- only two earned -- during the freshman's three innings of work.
Braithwaite, who loaded the bases for Sherando with three walks in the first, was hurt by his defense when Bentley's fly ball to left field with two outs was dropped, allowing two runs to score. Justin Angel, coming off a three-double night on Monday against James Wood, followed with a two-run double to right-center to give the Warriors a 4-0 lead.
"We definitely try to jump ahead to a big lead. We know these teams and we know that they're going to give us a good ballgame so we try to put up as many runs as we can," Bentley said. "We know that our defense will always be solid so we just try to keep our bats going, and we've been lucky enough to do that."
The four-run lead was plenty for Bentley on the mound, as he effectively worked out of jams and prevented Millbrook from putting a big inning together. Bentley stranded a total of five Millbrook (12-10) baserunners in the first and third innings alone, including four in scoring position.
The Pioneers' only run of the evening came as the result of two Sherando errors, a passed ball and a wild pitch in the top of the sixth inning.
Sherando pushed its lead to 5-0 on an RBI double by senior Jacob Carney (2-for-4) with two outs in the second inning, and the red-hot Angel (2-for-4, three RBIs) added an RBI single in the third to extend the margin to six runs.
The Warriors further extended the lead in the fourth inning when Smallwood (2-for-3, two RBIs) hit an RBI triple on a deep shot to right-center that appeared to hit the netting above the fence for a home run to give Sherando a 7-0 lead.
Smallwood and Bentley each added RBI singles in the sixth, and the Warriors added another run in the inning on Millbrook's third error of the game to take a 10-1 lead into the top of the seventh.
Sherando has come up with clutch hitting all season long, and nine of the Warriors' 10 runs on Tuesday came with two outs.
"We have confidence in every hitter in our lineup, and I think it rubs off on them. If we as coaches have confidence in them, I think they themselves have confidence," Warriors coach Pepper Martin said. "If their teammate doesn't get the job done and drive the run in in front of them, then they know that we fully expect them to and we have the confidence in them to be able to do it."
The Warriors will be the top seed in next week's Region II tournament, where they will look to put forth a better showing than last season's first round exit. Martin said Sherando has put last season's abrupt finish behind it, but many players from last season's team are determined to avoid a similar fate this year.
"Last season is an afterthought, it's long gone, but still you can't help but keep it in the back of your mind," Martin said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com