For each of the last three years, a Patriot District team has appeared in the Virginia AAA state title baseball game, with championships by West Springfield (2010) and Lake Braddock (2012) bracketing a second-place finish from South County (2011). So what makes teams from this district so formidable when playoff time comes around?
For one, on Tuesday afternoon, when a buzz-worthy storm sent federal employees scurrying home, the Bruins and Spartans were each holding their own intra-squad games, worried that a snowstorm might spike upcoming practices and scrimmages.
While some Bruins players hefted the tarp out from its hiding place behind the outfield fence and left it by the right-field corner (so it would be ready in case the skies opened up) others shagged a few fly balls to get warmed up.
Coaches Jody Rutherford (Lake Braddock) and Jason Olms (West Springfield) knew that if their teams were to contend again in the tough Patriot District (in the wake of a chilly preseason that limited outdoor days) they would have to get in some at-bats in front of live pitching. Especially with season openers coming up as soon as March 15.
Going hard is routine in the ultra-competitive district, especially for these two schools, separated by less than two miles along Rolling Road and packed with talent that came up battling every summer in the West Springfield Little League and continued pushing each other into their high school years. (The teams faced each other four times last year, with the Spartans winning the Northern Region title and the Bruins getting the remaining three wins, including the Patriot District pennant.)
“The coaches here are very competitive and they’ll push you to your max,” said Garett Driscoll, Lake Braddock’s four-year varsity catcher. “I remember one game last year, we beat Annandale [by 15 runs] and we came back and ran sprints for like 45 minutes after the game.”
Since the two schools are so consistently good, and so close by, it’s reasonable to suggest they ought to scrimmage every other day in the preseason, right? It would break up the monotony of endless batting practice, at least.
“But we’d probably end up fighting each other, eventually,” said senior West Springfield centerfielder Frank Sturek, laughing.
The commitment to preparation — hitting behind runners, holding baserunners close, knowing how to execute sometimes tricky bunt defenses — reveals itself not only in how well the district’s teams do in the white-knuckle state playoffs, but also how well the players do when they’re in college or playing on All-Star teams during the summer.
“I have 25 kids on my roster and they might be from 18 different high schools,” says Jeff Petty, who runs The Canes, an elite travel team based in Virginia that plays national summer baseball showcases. “We’re putting in our team defenses over the summer … and we do our stuff at the college level. Kids that come to our program [from the Patriot District] it’s pretty obvious they’ve played for coaches that do things at a high level. Other kids, not so much.”
A pair of recent Patriot District graduates, Kenny Towns (Lake Braddock) and Evan Beal (South County), impressed last spring as college freshmen. Towns batted over .300 as a catcher and DH at the University of Virginia while Beal, who turned down an offer to play professional baseball for the Kansas City Royals, fanned 55 batters in 52 innings for the University of South Carolina. Bobby Wahl, who led West Springfield to the 2010 state championship, is one of the top junior pitching prospects in the country at the University of Mississippi and likely to be an early pick in this June’s Major League Baseball entry draft. And there are certainly more players in the pipeline.
“It’s a really good baseball district,” said Sturek, who will be playing at Charleston Southern next year. “Take away the teams that made it to the state finals, and you have Woodson and West Potomac. Those are really good teams. It’s not like you have one opponent and the rest of the district season is kind of a rollover.”
Perhaps the best pitching prospect in the district is T.C. Williams’ Alec Grosser, a tall righty with a 91-93 mph fastball, who threw well late last summer for his tournament team. If he’s on, the Titans won’t have to produce many runs to score upsets against the district powers.
Unfortunately for Lake Braddock, two key pitchers who helped them to last year’s state title will likely miss the entire season. Thomas Rogers, who dominated Kellam in a 4-0, 10-strikeout championship game performance, underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall, and Nick Balenger sustained a debilitating spinal injury while vacationing with his family in Hawaii last summer. Driscoll is recovering from surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, while Mitch Spille and Matt Supko are working back from injuries as well.
“We’ve had the state championship curse, if you want to call it that,” Rutherford said. “Every single kid pretty much that played for me last year has gotten hurt and hasn’t really stepped on the field up to this point... You name it, we’ve got it.”
No one, however, will take the defending state champions lightly, said Olms.
“They do have their work cut out for them, but at the same time they have a ton of great ballplayers,” he said. “If anyone could handle those losses and still be able to compete, it’s Lake Braddock.”
The other recent state finalist, South County, has undergone some change of its own. Mark Luther, who led the Stallions to a 28-1 record and a berth in the state final two years ago, retired from coaching, and he’s been replaced by longtime assistant Robbie Smith. Luther was the only coach in the history of the county’s youngest school, and earned three district championships since 2005.
“He’s had some incredible years here,” said Smith, ticking off all of the Stallions’ accomplishments under Luther. “But I’m not Coach Luther, and hopefully we’ll settle in after this year and we’ll continue to be a competitive program.”
And the key to success in the state playoffs, if these teams make it that far?
“You think about the games that we have in our district,” said Smith, remembering regular-season epics like the Stallions’ 15-14 win against West Springfield in 2011. “That’s one of the things that prepares you for a region game, because it is so competitive.”