The New Market Rebels are back in the Valley Baseball League championship series for the first time in 13 years.
New Market, which has emerged as the league’s hottest team at precisely the right time, ran its winning streak to 11 straight games with a victory over Winchester to cap a two-game sweep in the North Division finals on Wednesday night, booking the Rebels a spot in the VBL finals for the first time since 2005.
It will be the Rebels’ 16th appearance in the championship series in team history, and New Market is seeking to win the league title for the first time since 2002 and for the fourth time overall. The Rebels, who came up empty on their first 10 trips to the championship series, also won VBL titles in 1989 and 1994.
“We’re definitely excited,” New Market manager Zac Cole, who’s in his third season with the team, said on Thursday. “When I came here before the summer of 2016, that was obviously our goal, to try to win the league. It took a couple years to put ourselves in a situation to do that. It’s been a couple years for the town of New Market since they’ve been in a championship series, so I’m excited for everybody that supports our team and our staff and everybody to kind of enjoy it, no matter how it goes. At least we’ve put ourselves in this position.”
Who the Rebels will play for the Lineweaver Cup, and when they will play again, remains undetermined as the Valley League’s bout with Mother Nature continues. The South Division semifinals have yet to be completed while Covington still waits to face the winner of Charlottesville and Waynesboro in the South finals.
New Market, the third seed, wasted no time taking care of things in the North, sweeping Front Royal in a best-of-three quarterfinal series earlier this week before thumping Winchester in two games on Tuesday and Wednesday to extend a winning streak that began back on July 20.
Led by boppers Andrew Eyster (University of South Carolina) and Oraj Anu (Wallace Community College) – who have combined for three homers, five doubles and 13 RBIs in four playoff games – the Rebels are averaging 9.4 runs per game during their winning streak (which doesn’t include the completion of a suspended game against Purcellville which originally began on June 9, a game New Market lost 4-3 in 10 innings).
New Market’s 5-3 win over the Royals on Wednesday marked the team’s lowest offensive output during that span, which has seen the Rebels score at least 10 runs in six of those 11 games.
“I felt all along that we had that kind of talent on the offensive side to be able to do this,” said Cole, whose team emerged from a slow start to post some of the best offensive numbers across the board in the Valley League.
“Hitting’s one of those contagious-type things too where once you get a couple of guys that are swinging it to the level of Oraj and Chase Sudduth and Andrew Eyster, it makes pitchers approach the lineup differently. It makes the other hitters in the lineup more comfortable. … We’ve definitely got some momentum on our side right now.”
How the Rebels’ extended layoff will impact that momentum remains to be seen. The decisive game three between Charlottesville and Waynesboro in a weather-beaten South semifinal matchup was postponed on Thursday, meaning New Market will have at least four days off before they play their first game in the VBL championship series.
“At this point in the summer one off-day maybe is a good thing but these guys see the finish line now,” Cole replied when asked if the break is good or bad for his squad. “They know that one way or the other their season’s gonna be over in a couple more games, so they just wanna play. They’re kind of over the day-off thing. They know where they’re at this summer, they know it’s August, they know that school’s starting, they know they wanna see their families, so they’re ready to play. If you ask me how I think it’s gonna affect us, honestly I don’t know.”
Cole added that the Rebels’ coaching staff was “still brainstorming” on Thursday ways to keep the team focused during the break, adding that the weather has put the VBL in a “precarious” situation with Covington dealing with a similar scenario as it awaits its South Division finals opponent.
“It’s gonna be interesting to see how the layoff affects us,” Cole said. “I believe in our team. I believe that we’re talented. I believe we’re talented enough to win it. We have to play well in order to do that. I hope that doesn’t affect us but honestly I don’t know.”
What Cole and the rest of the New Market coaching staff and fan base can take comfort in, he said, is that the Rebels have shown they possess a winner’s mentality.
“The good thing is … these guys that are on our team this summer, they wanna win our league. They’re here to win it and that’s important because it keeps them focused,” Cole said. “They’re determined to kind of finish this thing. I’m excited about that from the coaching side because I know we’re gonna get a good effort from those guys, but I think the days off will definitely test that determination and willpower.”