By Tommy Keeler Jr.
STEPHENS CITY -- Heading into the postseason, Sherando baseball coach Pepper Martin was a little concerned with how his team would respond in a big-game situation. The Warriors only had four games in the regular season that were decided by three runs or less. Last week the Warriors were put to the test, and they passed with flying colors.
"In the regionals, those tight one-run ballgames presented themselves, and our players persevered and found a way to pull them off," Martin said.
The Warriors host Culpeper today in the Group AA state baseball tournament quarterfinals at 7 p.m.
Sherando had to overcome several big challenges last week just to make it to the state tournament.
In the Region II quarterfinals, the Warriors pulled out a 1-0, 13-inning victory over Loudoun Valley, on a Chase Smallwood walk-off home run. The Warriors had to use both of their top two pitchers in the game.
They then came back with No. 3 starting pitcher, sophomore Adam Whitacre, against two-time defending Group AA state champion Powhatan. The combination of Whitacre and senior Taylor Loudan helped them pull out a 5-4, eight-inning, win over the Indians to gain a state berth.
The Warriors trailed 4-3 entering the bottom of the eighth, and then Smallwood's sacrifice fly tied the game, and Reid Entsminger's two-out, walk-off single gave the Warriors the win.
Sherando followed that up rallying from a 2-0 deficit to pull out a 9-4 win against Woodgrove in the Region II finals.
"Our confidence is up right now," Entsminger said. "We had two close games and pulled them out against two quality teams, very good teams. Our confidence is high, but we're not going to let it get to our heads too much. We still got to play the best game we've played all season, and that's how we're looking at this game."
The Region II title was the first in school history, and something that meant a lot to the players.
"It meant a lot since it was the first one in school history," Entsminger said. "We made history for Sherando baseball. It's a great feeling and I'm proud of everyone on the team."
It's the second time in school history the Warriors have advanced to the state tournament -- the other came in 2004, when they lost in the state semifinals.
The Warriors (23-1) have a bit of everything. Their defense is solid. They have a stellar and deep pitching staff. They also have quality bats throughout their lineup.
The depth on offense was showcased in the regional tournament.
"We got kids throughout the lineup who contributed to each one of our wins and in the regionals," Sherando senior Jacob Carney said. "So hopefully we can just keep the contributions coming from everyone in the order. A lot of games in the regular season and in the playoffs, myself and Taylor [Loudan], like the top three, we all struggled. But then we got contributions from five through nine. It's big knowing that you don't always have to be perfect for your team to win."
Martin said he didn't know a whole lot about Culpeper (15-6), but was still working on finding out more after Monday's practice. Martin said the Blue Devils are led by Blaine Lafin, who has already signed to play baseball at Virginia Military Institute next year.
"He seems to be one of their best players," Martin said. "His fastball is in the low-mid 80's."
Martin said as of Monday's practice he was still undecided as to who would start the game for the Warriors. He said they could throw several pitchers out there for a few innings each, or start Entsminger or Bentley.
Entsminger said it didn't matter who got to start.
"It doesn't really matter to me -- me, John [Bentley], Taylor [Loudan] or anybody," Entsminger said. "We're going to do a good job no matter who it is. If it's me tomorrow good, then I'll just throw strikes and the defense will make plays. If John is pitching, he'll do his thing. It doesn't matter who is pitching tomorrow. We're going to get the 'W.'"
The Warriors have won 11 consecutive games, after a one-run loss to Spotswood on April 22. They are averaging 9.1 runs per game.
Sherando has struggled to make it past the first game of regionals, but Carney said the team tries not to think about the past. Even though the team is just three wins away from the program's first state title, Carney said they want to keep their focus on the next game.
"At the beginning of the season our first goal was just to win the regular-season title,"
Carney said. "The second goal was the district tournament title, and then move on to regionals and state.
"We just try to take one game at a time and it's led us the right way."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org