It's another season in the books for the area's Valley Baseball League franchises.
New Market and Woodstock missed out on the postseason, while Front Royal was bumped out in the first round by Strasburg. The Express, in turn, bowed on last Saturday night to the Charles Town Cannons.
The players of those teams, who spent a short but always busy summer, are long gone now, headed back home or to their respective colleges to gear up for the spring season.
All those players forged relationships with teammates and coaches, made lifelong friendships with host families and fans, and created lasting memories for the communities they briefly joined and represented on those hot summer nights.
They'll be missed, all of them.
David Hafer is an extreme example of what the VBL can provide a community, but he's a good one. A three-year member of the Strasburg Express -- the first player to ever stay that long with the team -- Hafer had a solid run as a left-handed pitcher for the squad. He was never a star, but always a steady contributor capable of filling any role needed for the pitching staff. At various points in his Express tenure, Hafer served as the team's closer, as a long reliever and as a starting pitcher.
What Hafer did on the field for the Express is enough, but the rising senior from Rider University engaged with and embraced the community like few others. Little wonder, then, that Express General Manager Jay Neal calls Hafer the most popular player to ever suit up for the team.
"We've had some very popular players -- Teddy Payne, Brad Zebedis, Jordan Tarsovich was amazing last year, but David can be almost child-like when he's goofing around with them," Neal said. "We're going to miss him. He's as good as gold."
Hafer, from Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, requested help in securing a job during the day. Neal linked him up with Dennis Morris, who owns Moo Manor Farm in Toms Brook, and it was the start of a three-year relationship.
"It's been fun," Hafer said. "The people are great. I have a job here, and they kept me going when it was light so you don't have to sit around all day."
Morris said Hafer, who came from a farming background, was quick to pick up on his duties around the farm, whether it was baling hay or helping move cattle from one pasture to another. By his second year, Hafer had moved from general farmhand chores to taking a more active role in managing the farm and filling in when Morris was away.
"If you asked him to do something, you knew it would get done and get done right," Morris said. "He's been a fixture on the farm. We were very pleased and blessed to have him, not only as an employee but also as a friend."
Morris has employed several Strasburg players during the team's four-year existence and is impressed by "the good, solid young men" the league brings to the area each and every summer. Hafer is not so much the exception as the rule, but that didn't make him any less exceptional.
"He's not afraid to work, for sure," Morris said.
Hafer always had a home to come back to in Strasburg during the VBL season, returning each summer to stay with Strasburg resident Brenda Himelright.
"I think Brenda's ready to adopt him," Neal said.
Heading into a potential elimination game against Charles Town last Saturday, Express manager Ben Moore and his staff had to decide on a starting pitcher to face the Cannons with the season on the line. Hafer, who'd thrown well in a relief appearance two days before, was the logical and the emotional choice to get his first home start of the season at First Bank Park.
"It's our final home game possibly, and we said he deserves it," Moore said. "He's a three-year guy, and that kid does more stuff for this community and this field than anybody I've been around. So I thought he deserved that start and he threw well. He left two pitches up and other than that, he was fine. I thought he did really well."
Strasburg, perhaps an improbable choice to even reach the VBL semifinals considering the team had to play 27 straight days away from home following storm damage to First Bank Park, fell short in that deciding Game 2 loss to the Cannons. Hafer did what he usually does -- provide a quality effort. He worked six innings, allowing three runs on five hits while striking out six. On many nights, that would have been good enough to earn the win -- just not that night.
"I'm sad to see it end," Hafer said after the game. "I was hoping it would last another week."
Now Hafer's headed back to school, and for the first time in a long time his summer plans aren't set in stone.
"The first year I came here I liked the coaching staff, I liked the GM, I liked the fans," Hafer said. "They actually asked me the day after the season ended if I wanted to come back and I said, 'Yeah, sure.' Then the third year there was no doubt that I wanted to come back because I wanted to spend my last summer here again."
Hafer knew his long run in Strasburg had ended last Saturday night, and he was genuinely grateful for the chance to put on the same uniform, play on the same field, see the same faces in the stands and away from the ball park for the past three summers. It's a rare thing for a college baseball player to enjoy such stability, and Hafer appreciated every minute of it.
"I've been very lucky," Hafer said. "I've had the same host family, I've had the same job for the last three years. So I feel like I've been one of the lucky ones compared to other players on my college team who go to different teams every year and never get to experience what I have."
Strasburg was just as lucky to have him for three years.
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org