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McLean fell 5-4 to Western Branch in Saturday’s state baseball semifinals, ending a roller-coaster season that included 12 losses and the program’s first appearance in a region championship game. The Highlanders (15-12) pulled even on two occasions Saturday, but a two-run double from Western Branch’s Kyle McPherson in the bottom of the sixth inning proved to be the difference.

McPherson’s hit wasn’t the only pivotal moment of that inning. With two outs gone and McLean senior Evan Blake standing on second base, Matt Bielamowicz lined a single up the middle. As he sprinted for home, Blake was tagged high and leveled by Western Branch catcher Devon Fischer, who hovered over Blake and dropped the ball on him for emphasis. That play inflamed tensions in the McLean dugout and nearly started a fight between players from both sides.

“Our kids have responded to adversity extremely well all year,” McLean coach John Dowling said. “We knew in the first eight games of the season with the baseball team that we had that our team could go out and compete every single night. They did that for seven innings today. They competed.”

The defeat ended a season that saw McLean win its first five games before eventually hitting a rough patch that featured seven losses in eight outings. Seeded seventh in the eight-team Conference 6 tournament, the Highlanders stormed all the way to the 6A North Region final, where they lost 12-0 to Chantilly. Highlighting that run was a 5-1 semifinal victory against Madison, the Conference 6 champions who entered that contest with 21 wins in their previous 22 games.

“We were very, very fortunate to inherit such a talented group of kids,” said Dowling, a first-year coach at McLean. “They played their butts off for us this season. Everyone likes to look at the coach because he’s the one that’s around for awhile, but it’s the kids that win baseball games.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com