By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Pepper Martin has been a part of some very good teams during his 30 years of coaching high school baseball.
In 1985, Martin was an assistant coach under Bill Beckman at James Wood the year the Colonels advanced all the way to the Group AAA state championship game. In 2004 Martin returned to the state tournament as the head coach at Sherando, when the Warriors reached the Group AA semifinals.
Both times Martin fell short of hoisting that state championship trophy, and both times Martin was left wondering what it would feel like to reach the pinnacle of high school sports.
Martin no longer has to imagine that feeling, not after Sherando put together a magical 2013 season that ended with the program's first-ever Group AA state championship.
It's a feeling that Martin has trouble fully grasping at times, but it's a feeling that is impossible to ignore.
"Every now and then I'll just be doing something normally and then I'll say, 'We're the state champions.' I'll never get used to that feeling, that's for sure," said Martin, who has served as the head coach at Sherando since the school's creation in 1993. "It was without a doubt one of the greatest feelings I've ever felt personally as a coach."
The road to Sherando's first baseball state championship was truly an amazing journey for Martin and the Warriors, as it seemed the Warriors simply couldn't be denied that highly coveted trophy at season's end.
After rolling through the regular season, in which Sherando was a perfect 16-0 in Northwestern District games, the Warriors kept up that impressive dominance in the district tournament. In the two games Sherando played in the tournament, the Warriors outscored their opponents 23-1.
That seemingly effortless romping through the district schedule drew some doubts as to how Sherando would hold up in regional play, especially after the way a highly talented Warriors squad fell apart in last year's Region II quarterfinals.
But last year's early postseason exit only fueled the Warriors' drive.
"It left a bad taste in their mouths for a number of these players, particularly the seniors. I think they were determined that it wasn't going to happen like that again," Martin, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Baseball Coach of the Year, said.
Sherando's determination to not let that disappointing history repeat itself was on full display when the Warriors took the field against Loudoun Valley in the Region II quarterfinals.
Sherando could have easily lost that game on May 28 -- and maybe they should have -- but something inside the Warriors just wouldn't allow that to happen.
Despite not managing a single baserunner against Loudoun Valley starter Danny White through the first nine innings, Sherando somehow managed to pull out a thrilling 1-0 win behind outstanding pitching and Chase Smallwood's walk-off home run in the bottom of the 13th inning.
"It was at that point that if there were any non-believers, they should probably start jumping on the bandwagon then," Martin said.
Sherando returned two nights later with another dramatic extra-inning win over Powhatan in the regional semifinals, and Martin said he could sense that something special was brewing.
"It looked like we were gaining an incredible level of confidence, but it also seemed like a little bit of magic was starting to be performed," Martin said.
The Warriors rode that confidence to their first-ever Region II title with a win over Woodgrove, and then punched their ticket to the state final four with a come-from-behind victory over Culpeper in the Group AA quarterfinals.
Sherando's magic continued with a 4-2 win over previously unbeaten Amherst County in the state semifinals, and the Warriors suddenly found themselves in the state championship game in Radford for the first time in the program's history.
In what became typical Warriors fashion, Sherando delivered with outstanding starting pitching and timely hitting, and a 2-1 win over Tunstall gave Martin and the Warriors their first taste of championship glory.
As the Warriors bore down on starting pitcher John Bentley from all directions of the field after recording that final out in the championship game, Martin sprang from his spot at the top of the dugout steps to join his players in the celebratory dog pile.
Much like the Warriors all season long, Martin would not be denied his ultimate goal -- not even after tripping over the heel of assistant coach Craig Bodenschatz as he bolted out of the dugout.
"I went tumbling, but with my physical education background, I did a pretty nice safety roll and came right back up to my feet and continued on to my quest of diving in the pile," Martin said. "I felt like a kid. I thought I dove pretty gracefully on the dog pile."
Martin knows he will have the tough task of replacing six seniors when next season rolls around, and he admits that his thoughts often wandered to how he would fill that gaping void during Sherando's bus ride home from Radford.
But since returning home from that magical game on June 9, Martin has decided that those concerns about next season can wait.
"Right now I'm just going to enjoy this because it doesn't happen very often," Martin said. "It took us 20 years, so I'm going to savor the moment for a few months."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org