Few teams have exerted the kind of dominance displayed by Madison’s baseball squad this season. Since dropping their season opener 3-2 against Fairfax, the Warhawks have reeled off 19 straight wins, outscoring opponents 170-33 in that stretch. With the regular season in the books, Madison (19-1, 13-1 Liberty) heads into the playoffs not only as the odds-on favorite to win its third Liberty District title in the last four years, but also as the group capable of delivering its school’s first Northern Region crown in the last 10 years.
Yet no one suiting up in red and black Friday night will be dwelling on the 19 wins under their belts. Thanks to a long-held step-by-step approach preached by their head coach, everyone in the Madison dugout believes they have reached the Liberty District semifinal on the heels of a 2-0 record.
Mark “Pudge” Gjormand, in the thick of his 18th season as Madison’s skipper, encourages his players to break their long season down into five phases. The first phase was the team’s out-of-district schedule, which they swept thanks to an 11-3 victory against Oakton and five straight wins at the Mingo Bay Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The second phase was their district slate, in which the Warhawks rebounded from their opening loss to collect a district-high 13 wins.
Now it’s on to Game 1 of Phase 3, the very stage that tripped up Gjormand’s boys in last year’s 2-0 loss to Langley.
“We’ve always done this - it kind of just works for us,” Gjormand said. “We don’t really focus on the opponent so much as play against the game... It just helps us stay focused and locked in on the challenge at hand.”
Even with the consistent success it has enjoyed through the years, Madison has been unable to break through to the fifth and final stage in recent years. The Warhawks reached the regional seminfinals in 2010 and 2011 but weren’t able to advance to the state tournament.
This year’s team can go further on the wings of an experienced roster led by guys who suffered those disappointments at regionals. Senior shortstop Andy McGuire, who will decide between the University of Texas and pro baseball this summer, is hitting .439 while posting a .949 fielding percentage (four errors on 79 chances) this season. Right-handed ace Dan Powers, the district’s Co-Pitcher of the Year along with Stone Bridge’s JB Bukauskas, has walked only three batters in 52 innings while posting a 0.80 ERA. And senior Ben Socher was named the district’s Player of the Year last weekend thanks to outstanding play in right field complemented by 33 hits and 26 runs.
The maturity of those three, alongside other experienced seniors like 6-foot-4 right hander Daniel Bayer, has allowed Gjormand to implement his daily practice plans with ease.
“We’ve just been consistent every day in what we do in practice,” Gjormand said. “If they’re consistent I don’t have to come out and ask them to play well. They handle themselves like an experienced group.”
The Warhawks have thrived on defense as of late, surrendering just seven runs in their last nine outings. Powers leads a deep pitching staff that has been pounding the strike zone and making guys earn their way on base. Junior Nick Brady and sophomore Brian Eckert have also thrived on the mound this spring, along with Bayer, the team’s closer. Altogether, eight pitchers have combined to produce a 1.40 team ERA this season.
The pitching staff’s confidence is bolstered by the reliable fleet at its back. Socher and senior center fielder Jake Hall lead a slew of returning starters in the outfield, while McGuire is joined by a talented group of first-time starters in the infield. Senior first baseman Patrick Eason hasn’t committed an error all season, and Tommy Kyle, Luke Belt and Andrew DiFrancisco have shored up second and third base duties in impressive fashion.
“I think all of our pitchers trust the defense,” said Powers, who will play at William and Mary next year. “Our defense always has our backs when we’re on the mound. Really it’s the full team aspect of the game - hitting, pitching and defense. Right now all three are working pretty well, and when one doesn’t work, we pick it up with one of the other two.”
Blowouts have been the norm for the Warhawks this year, but they were thrown a gutsy challenge two weeks ago against Langley. In that contest Madison squandered an early 4-0 lead before grinding out a 7-4 win in 13 innings. Though they weren’t at their best, Madison’s players look back on that game as an experience that will fortify them against difficult postseason competition ahead.
“We’re just trying to get better every day,” said Socher, who will play at Dartmouth next year. “We’re going to get everyone’s best effort. We played Langley and it was definitely a close game. Those are the games we look forward to. We know that when we go into 13 innings we’ve got to be able to outlast the other team.”
With a week in between last Friday’s 5-0 win against Jefferson and their district semifinal, Gjormand has tried to keep his club’s momentum rolling by giving this week a familiar feel. The Warhawks simulated their typical Tuesday night contest by playing an intra-squad scrimmage at 5 p.m., the same start time as Friday’s semifinal.
“We’re just focused on Game 1 of Phase 3 here on Friday,” Powers said. “We’re going to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time, and try to enjoy it as much as possible.”