By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Sherando seniors Chase Smallwood and Reid Entsminger have been in high-pressure situations before. They saw plenty of them -- and conquered them -- during the Warriors' run to a Group AA state championship last season.
So it came as no surprise to longtime Warriors coach Pepper Martin that Sherando's two team captains delivered again with their team's season hanging in the balance during Wednesday afternoon's Region 4A North semifinal game against visiting Louisa County.
With the game tied in the bottom of the seventh, Smallwood -- who kept Sherando afloat with six solid innings on the mound against the Lions -- led off with a bunt single, and Entsminger followed with a walk-off RBI triple to left field to cap a dramatic 2-1 win and qualify the Warriors for next weekend's Group 4A state tournament.
Sherando will travel to Northwestern District rival Millbrook -- which has beaten the Warriors four times this season -- for Friday's regional championship game.
"Who better to come through again for you in a tight situation than those two senior leaders?" Martin said after the game, which became just the latest in a series of classic playoff victories that the Warriors have achieved over the last two seasons. "They're both our senior captains and they've been there before. They didn't let the pressure of a big game get to them. They stayed within themselves and they played within their capabilities."
The duo's veteran savvy shone brightly in the game's final inning.
It began with Smallwood, who knew the importance of getting an early baserunner against Louisa County lefty ace Thomas Dunnavant, who had limited the Warriors to just two hits through the first six innings.
Smallwood, who noticed that Lions third baseman Josh Holley was playing about 15 feet behind the bag, beat Martin to the punch and dropped a rare base-hit bunt attempt towards third base a pitch before Martin could give him the sign. The bunt was placed perfectly and surprised Louisa County just enough for Smallwood to reach first safely without a throw.
Martin said Smallwood's decision to bunt was almost like a bit of "mental telepathy."
"That was all me," Smallwood said of the decision to bunt. "I looked at [assistant] coach [Craig Bodenschatz before the inning] and I go, 'Hey, if this third baseman is back like he plays all the time, I'm going to lay a bunt down.' I work on it in practice all the time. I have faith in myself to do it."
Entsminger -- who had been hoping for that exact opportunity -- then strode to the plate with the winning run on first base. Dunnavant dealt two balls to Entsminger to open the at-bat, and on the 2-0 pitch, Smallwood took off for second on a steal attempt. Instead of taking the pitch, Entsminger jumped on a fastball that found the heart of the plate and lifted a fly ball deep to left.
The ball caromed off the top of the fence, and Smallwood raced all the way around to score the game-winning run before being mobbed at home plate by his teammates.
"I wanted that situation -- Chase get on base and I just wanted to hit him in. ... I wanted the pressure and I just wanted to take us back to state again. I'm glad I could do that for us," Entsminger said.
"I was on my front foot most of the game and so that at-bat I was just really trying to sit back. I saw the steal sign and I was like, 'Man, a base hit might score Chase if I can get a double.' ... I think [Dunnavant] might have missed his spot on the last pitch because he threw it right in my sweet spot."
Sherando (16-6) had struggled against Dunnavant up to that point, although the Warriors did scratch across a run in the bottom of the first inning due to some great baserunning by junior Adam Whitacre.
Dunnavant opened the inning by hitting Whitacre, who moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Zach Henke. Smallwood then lofted a fly ball to center field, and Whitacre tagged up and advanced to third base. The ensuing relay throw to third skipped into Sherando's dugout, awarding Whitacre an extra base to plate Sherando's first run.
Dunnavant fell into a rhythm after that, and the senior retired 10 straight Warriors batters following Whitacre's two-out triple in the third inning.
"The first two [innings] he was struggling, to be honest. He couldn't throw a curveball or changeup over. Then by the third or fourth inning he ended up finding it. He threw outstanding for us," Lions coach Kevin Fisher said of Dunnavant, who allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits and a hit batter while striking out seven over six-plus innings. "He was outstanding, it was just a shame we couldn't hit for him tonight."
Smallwood didn't have as much luck in keeping Louisa County off the base paths on Wednesday, but the senior was able to get the big outs when he needed them. The Lions stranded a total of nine baserunners over six innings, including seven in scoring position.
Louisa County (14-9) loaded the bases for the top of its lineup with one out in both the second and fourth innings against Smallwood, but both times the Sherando right-hander was able to get a key strikeout to help avoid trouble.
The Lions' lone run came on an RBI single by senior Brandon Carter in the second inning.
"[Smallwood's] not a strikeout pitcher, but he has enough experience on the mound that he's going to try to hit his spots, change speed and location, and not necessarily prevent the other team from hitting the ball but prevent them from hitting it hard," Martin said. "He got multiple fly outs and popups because his pitch location was good. He never gave them anything fat to square up on."
Sherando, which beat Eastern View 1-0 despite recording just one hit on Monday, will seek on Friday to extend a postseason run that Smallwood said is beginning to feel familiar.
"It kind of reminds me of last year. Great games, battled all the way to the end," Smallwood said.
"I think nobody plays under pressure," he added of Sherando's success in close games this postseason. "Nobody really expected us to be here so there's really no pressure on us actually winning. Everything from first game of regionals there on was a success to us. I don't think anybody really expected us to be here, so there's no way of us failing. We were one game away from states at the beginning of this game. Now we're actually in states. Nobody saw it coming."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD