The Madison Warhawks seemed to have everything in their favor heading into Wednesday night’s 6A North Region baseball semifinal. Playing on their home turf, the Conference 6 champions entered with 21 wins in their past 22 outings. They had won each of their past 28 games against current conference opponents, including a combined 19-3 run advantage in their two meetings this season against McLean, the team they faced on this night.
But as any baseball guru knows, all it takes is one hot pitcher to throw everything else out the window.
Madison ran into the hottest pitcher in the area on Wednesday, and it cost them a shot at the state tournament. McLean ace Joey Sullivan took the momentum from his one-hitter against Conference 5 champion Oakton last Friday and parlayed it into a complete game against Madison. The result was an unlikely 5-1 victory that vaulted McLean to its first region championship appearance in program history.
“I think we played loose, and I think we played together tonight,” said Sullivan, who gave up three hits in six innings Wednesday. “I kept talking about how the pressure was all on them. This was the best team win I’ve ever been a part of. Everybody contributed, so it was a near perfect game for us.”
Sullivan couldn’t have started Wednesday’s outing much worse. The Virginia Tech signee hit Madison junior Owen Socher on his very first pitch in the bottom of the first.
“I honestly couldn’t believe I did that,” Sullivan said. “There’s no excuses for that at all, but I was hot and I was nervous. I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t going to happen again. No chance.’”
The senior right-hander steeled himself and turned away the next five batters he faced. Sullivan ended up in another hole when he walked Madison’s leadoff batter in the bottom of the sixth, but he struck out the next three batters he faced to effectively seal the deal.
A light drizzle turned into a steady downpour in the bottom of the seventh, forcing umpires to call the game after a 30-minute delay. The Warhawks had runners on first and second with one out when umpires stopped the action. Facing a 1-2 count was Michael Nielsen, the senior catcher who blasted a tying home run with his team one out away from elimination two days earlier against West Potomac. Mother Nature made sure Nielsen didn’t get a chance to repeat those heroics.
Madison skipper Mark “Pudge” Gjormand regretted playing the game at 7 p.m. with rain on the way, but he ultimately tipped his hat to a resurgent McLean side.
“They came out hot,” Gjormand said. “They beat Oakton, they beat Battlefield. I knew exactly where they were mentally. Truth be told, I think they underachieved [during the regular season]. They were the most talented team in the conference besides us.”
Indeed, McLean didn’t exactly finish strong after winning its first five games of the season. The Highlanders hit a midseason stretch where they lost seven of eight games, eventually winding up with the No. 7 seed in the eight-team Conference 6 tournament.
“Our number one goal coming into the season was to reach states,” said first-year manager John Dowling, whose team was making the program’s first regional semifinal appearance since 1981. “Madison’s a very good team, and we knew that we struggled against them the first two times, but I think right now we’re kind of peaking. This team’s got a little momentum behind them, and we keep getting quality starting pitching, keep playing great defense and now all of a sudden we’re getting timely hits.”
Madison beat Langley 3-0 two weeks ago to capture its 10th conference title in the last 13 years. But the Warhawks again failed to reach the region championship, a stage they haven’t seen since 2003.
“It was a good season,” Gjormand said. “Anytime you win a title it’s a really good season. It’s just not a great season. To have a great season you’ve got to win the region title or be state champion. I’m proud of the guys. I tell them I lose games, they win games. It’s on me, and I’ve got to find a way to have us prepared.”
McLean’s first trip to the region final will pit them against Chantilly, which beat West Springfield 4-1 on Wednesday. The Chargers will be playing their first region championship since 2008, when they fell to Lake Braddock 9-6 before losing to Bethel in the state quarterfinals. Chantilly, a two-seed, earned the right to host Friday’s championship against the fourth-seeded Highlanders.
Chantilly ace Eason Recto struck out nine to lead the Chargers on the mound. Sophomore Jared DiCesare crushed a two-run homer to provide the final margin.