FRONT ROYAL — With the memory of last year’s heartbreaking regional semifinal loss still fresh in their minds, the Warren County Wildcats found a way this time, holding on to beat Culpeper 4-3 at Bing Crosby Stadium.
The win puts the Wildcats (16-5) into Thursday’s Region 3B championship game against the winner of William Monroe and Brentsville and automatically qualifies the Wildcats for the Class 3 state tournament next week.
“I was just hoping. I knew we would get it done,” said first-year Warren County coach John Tierney. “We got a little tight there and they put the pressure on us. It was almost the same situation (as last year), but we made the play.”
Last spring it appeared the Wildcats were on their way to a regional championship game and a state berth, but an infield error at second allowed the tying and go-ahead runs to score as the season ended for Warren in stunning fashion.
This spring it was different.
After building a 4-0 lead after five innings, the Blue Devils made things interesting in the sixth and seventh.
After escaping several jams over the first five innings, Warren County pitcher Joey Sorge finally had his propensity to giving up free passes finally catch up to him.
Sorge, who issued five walks – including four to start an inning, walked Culpeper lead-off hitter Ben Anderson to start the sixth.
Jake Dudley followed with a single and then Kyle McMeans sacrificed both runners over a base.
Harry Bradshaw then ripped a 2-run single to left to score both runners and cut the Warren lead in half.
Warren went to the bullpen and brought in ace Jackson Arnold to put out the fire.
Arnold promptly struck out Hunter Graham, but back-to-back infield errors allowed another Blue Devils run to score.
With two runners on Arnold retired dangerous Eric Wilson, who had two hits and a walk in his earlier at bats, on a fly out to right.
In the top of the seventh, Arnold once again started strong by striking out back-to-back batters.
Needing just one out to achieve their goal of a state tournament berth, Warren County fans would soon be squirming in their seats once again.
Arnold walked Jake Dudley then hit McMeans to put runners at first and second.
Then on a 3-2 count Bradshaw hit a grounder toward second.
This time the play was made and the Wildcats began celebrating their 4-3 win.
“I was just trying to throw strikes and give my teammates something easy to handle,” Arnold said. “It was nerve wracking for sure.”
Despite the two late errors, the Warren defense was its usual stellar self during the win, particularly catcher Ronnie Dodson.
The senior backstop blocked several balls in the dirt, including a pair of third strikes, and also made the play of the game for the Wildcats.
With two outs and Wilson at third for the Blue Devils, a Sorge fastball bounced into the dirt and off to the right of home.
As Wilson broke for the plate Dodson scrambled to the ball, scooped it up and fired a perfect strike to Sorge covering and tagging out the Culpeper runner inches from the plate.
Dodson also reached base all three times, singling and scoring the Wildcats first run in the second, being hit by a pitch in the fourth, and walking with the bases loaded in the fifth to push across what would be the eventual game-winning run.
“I said all year that I knew we had the potential,” Dodson said. “As a senior, it’s great to finally make it.”
Sorge escaped a bases loaded jam in the third as Culpeper filled the sacks with no outs thanks to a pair of lead-off walks and a sharp single to left by Zack Gray.
Sorge then got a grounder to first that Jordan Kenyon fielded and fired home in the dirt.
Dodson scooped up the ball to force the runner at the plate.
Sorge then got a big strikeout for out number two.
Then what looked like a routine grounder became an adventure for Sorge.
McMeans grounder was straight back at Sorge, who fielded the ball cleanly, but stumbled back over the pitching rubber. Sorge regrouped and fired the ball to beat the runner at first and end the threat.
“Joey is always a gutsy pitcher,” Tierney said. “But he always throws a lot of pitches, but he works out of the mess.”
Leading 1-0, Warren tacked on a run in the fourth as Dylan Johnson – who had led off the inning with a single — scored on a Culpeper error.
In the fifth, the Wildcats added two more runs, taking advantage of a pair of Culpeper errors.
Warren’s only hit of the inning was Jake DiPatre’s one-out single.
Now the Wildcats will be guaranteed a state tournament berth no matter the outcome of Thursday’s regional championship game.
“It’s big,” Arnold said. “Since last year, we have been saying that we would get there this year. We don’t care if it’s a tight game. We just play Warren County baseball and compete on every pitch.”
Tierney said the Wildcats deserve the chance after coming so close in the past.
“I think it was our time,” Tierney said. “We have had lots of good teams and lots of good coaches, but this year we got the breaks.”