By Jeff Nations
Steve Smallwood had a pretty good idea that his baseball team was going to be strong this season.
Smallwood had a front row seat to Sherando High School's march to the Group AA state championship this spring, after all -- his son, Chase, was the Warriors' starting catcher and occasional starting pitcher. Knowing that Chase Smallwood, plus teammates Justin Angel, John Bentley, Jacob Carney and Taylor Loudan were all going to suit up for the Winchester Post 21 squad this summer had to be more than a bit reassuring.
The trick with summer baseball, though, is getting all available talent together at any given time. Summer vacations, college commitments, jobs, assorted other issues -- all of them can have an impact on the roster, and Winchester has had its share of short-handed lineups this year.
That won't change just because the postseason has started, either. Top-seeded Winchester enters tonight's District 16 tournament short a couple players. Post 21 hosts Warrenton Post 72, a play-in winner, tonight at 7 p.m. at James Wood High School's R. Charles Hott Field missing closer Ethan Emmart and Bentley -- a dominant left-handed starting pitcher and a force at the plate this season.
"It's been a great season, of course," said Steve Smallwood, whose squad boasts a 14-4 record heading in the district tournament. "It's been kind of hit-and-miss with some players all year, but everybody's done their part and filled in when we needed them. I think Chase and maybe Brian Thomas are the only two who haven't missed any games.
"Every team is like that, and has had to deal with the same thing."
Winchester has the depth to make up for a few missing players, and relying on that core from Sherando has been a winning solution. Carney (.439 batting average, 14 RBIs), Angel (.350, 15 RBIs), Chase Smallwood (.390, 15 RBIs), Bentley (.421, 6 RBIs) and Loudan (.319, 8 RBIs, team-high nine stolen bases) helped make Post 21 a potent offense all summer. Carney, Bentley, Loudan and Angel are all recent graduates.
It's not just Sherando kicking in all the offense. Recent Middleburg Academy grad Cody Unger is batting .403 with a team-high 24 RBIs, Millbrook grad Daniel Nawrocki (.368) and rising junior Ryan Hartigan (.378, 16 RBIs), Handley grad Jacob Funkhouser (.368) and James Wood's Nick Goode (.404) have all had significant impacts this year in helping Post 21 average about eight runs per game.
On the mound, James Wood graduate Addison Barber (20 innings, 23 strikeouts, 0.45 ERA), Chase Smallwood (23 innings, 17 Ks, 0.39 ERA), Angel (15.2 innings, 11 Ks, 1.72 ERA), plus Bentley and Emmart, have been the best of a strong group.
Still, Steve Smallwood isn't taking Warrenton lightly to open the double-elimination tournament. Last year, Warrenton dealt Post 21 an early loss. Winchester regrouped and reached the district championship, where it fell to Manassas Post 158 in the title game.
"We played them last year and they beat us in the opening round of the tournament," Smallwood said. "We had six errors in that game."
Defense remains an area of concern for Post 21, particularly up the middle.
"Our defense has got to get a little bit better going into the tournament," Smallwood said. "Our pitching has been strong, but we've got to solidify the defense a little bit."
Winchester's toughest opponent in tournament play might also be the closest. Front Royal Post 53 (11-7) enters tournament play tonight as the No. 2 seed and will host Leesburg Post 34 in a 7 p.m. game at Bing Crosby Stadium.
Post 53 has also put up its share of gaudy numbers this season. Recent Strasburg graduate Tyler Hott has been spectacular all summer, batting .455 with 16 RBIs as a starting shortstop. On the mound, the right-hander has compiled a 2.52 ERA in 25 innings with 16 strikeouts. Former Randolph-Macon Academy standout Neil Dutton has also had a strong season. At the plate, the Shenandoah University-bound Dutton is batting .411 with 14 RBIs and is a perfect 9-for-9 on stolen-base attempts. Dutton has been a workhorse on the mound, where the righty has logged 28 1/3 innings with a team-high 24 strikeouts.
Recent Warren County graduates Tyler Post (.444, 7 RBIs) and Heath Almarode (.325), and Skyline graduate Hunter Stewart (.385, 16 RBIs) and Chaz Rutherford (.295) have also been solid performers for Post 53 this season.
The winner of the double-elimination district tournament advances to next week's state tournament in Williamsburg. From there, the state champion would advance to regional play with hopes of reaching the American Legion World Series later this summer in Shelby, N.C.