By Tommy Keeler Jr.
STEPHENS CITY -- It will be the battle of the champs when Sherando and Hanover collide today in the Group 4A baseball state semifinals.
Both teams are defending state champions. Sherando won the Group AA state title last year, and Hanover won the Group AAA state championship. Due to the reclassification, there are now six classes and Hanover dropped down to 4A.
The Hawks (19-2) have three Division I players on their squad, including starting pitcher Derek Casey who has committed to play at the University of Virginia next year. However, don't expect the Warriors to be intimidated or afraid of the challenge that awaits them.
"They were here last here, same as us. I'm expecting a good game," Sherando senior Reid Entsminger said. "We know they've got some ball players over there, so it should be a good game, should be battle.
"It's just another challenge for us. It would be a lot of momentum for us for Saturday's game. But we're just focused on Friday and getting that 'W.'"
The Hawks' No. 2 pitcher is sophomore Greg Lyttle, who pitched part of a two-hitter against Grafton in the 4A South regional final last week. Hanover's No. 3 starter is Trevor Denton, who has committed to play for Virginia Military Institute next season.
The top hitter for the Hawks is U.Va.-commit Cayman Richardson, who is only a sophomore.
While the Hawks may have plenty of pitching, their offense has been struggling lately. Hanover scored only five runs in three regional games last week.
Sherando (16-7) can relate to that, having scored only nine runs in its last three games. Much of the offense lately has come from Entsminger, Chase Smallwood, Adam Whitacre and Connor Stevenson, the four returning players from last year's squad.
"Our team knows that we've got to get some production from the bottom of the lineup," Sherando coach Pepper Martin said. "We've got to get some base runners on so that we flip the lineup over to the top."
The Warriors have been playing better defensively, something that was a huge issue for the team early in the season. Martin said the team still needs to play even better defensively now that the Warriors are in the semifinals.
One area that has been strong all season for the Warriors has been pitching. Led by Adam Whitacre, Sherando has been able to hang around in games due to its pitching staff.
"If you look back on our season, with the exception of two losses, our pitching staff has performed well enough to give us a chance to win," Martin said. "Our team ERA has been miniscule. It's just the unearned runs that we've been giving up that have come back to bite us."
Martin said much of the credit for the pitching goes to Sherando assistant coach and pitching coach Craig Bodenschatz.
The Warriors struggled early in the season, but have really hit their stride in the postseason.
"I think we just came together as a team and we realized that it's not an individual thing this year," Entsminger said. "We've got to work together and do our jobs. Everyone on the team has their own individual job, and if we take care of that the wins will come and it's showed this postseason. Just keep doing that, and we should be good."
Having four players that have been in the state tournament should be a good thing for the Warriors.
"It's not going to be a surprise to us. Going there last year was a big surprise. We were all kind of like, 'What we do now?," Smallwood said. "I think it will help because we're used to being in that atmosphere. Unlike [Group 4A state semifinalist] Millbrook, who might get there and be nervous, we'll be loose, like Reid and I. I think that helps."
One thing that the Warriors certainly don't have to worry about is lack of motivation. Having won the state title last year, the Warriors are hungry for more, especially the seniors.
"I'm not one for losing, so I just want to keep winning," Entsminger said. "What better way to go out than to win these last few games and get another ring?"
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd