Charging into school history

Published 10:32 pm Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Central baseball reaches state tournament for first time in 24 years

Not since 1994 has a Central High School varsity baseball team played in the regional championship game, but it happened Friday, and it was followed by an appearance in the 2018 Virginia High School League Class 1 state tournament Tuesday.

On Friday the No. 2 Chargers held host No. 1 Riverheads High School scoreless two outs into the bottom of the seventh inning before the Gladiators were finally able to reach home, clinching a 1-0 victory in the Region 1B tournament title game.

But this narrow loss cannot overshadow the outstanding achievement that came the day before when Central defeated visiting No. 3 William Campbell High School 4-2 in the regional semifinals to clinch the Chargers’ first state tournament berth in 24 years.

“It’s a great accomplishment for the program, and this group of seniors has been working for three years to get to the regional championship and the state playoffs, so I couldn’t be happier for them,” Central Head Coach Michael Atkins said. “They’ve earned it.”

Senior Ethan Hoover said the achievement “means a lot because we’ve been working for this all year to be honest. We’ve been practicing day in, day out. This is what we’ve been waiting for all year. This was the biggest game. We called this game the state championship game to be honest. It took a lot, but we worked together and got it.”

Central (12-10) was set to play at Region 1A champion Northumberland High School in the state quarterfinals Tuesday evening. With a victory, the Chargers would play Friday at Radford University in the semifinals at 10 a.m. The state championship game is set for Saturday at the same time and location.

In Thursday’s regional semifinals, Central took a 4-0 lead before the Generals made it 4-2 in the fifth inning. Hoover pitched into the sixth inning, and then senior Christian Hall closed out the contest.

“We got through a big game today, a great competitor in William Campbell, a good-coached team,” Atkins said Thursday. “They played hard — you knew that was going to happen. We knew we had to hit the ball today, and I think we did a pretty good job of putting the ball in play and making contact.”

Senior Nate Nowlin went 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored, senior L.J. Watson went 2-for-4 with a run scored, Christian Hall was 1-for-3 with an RBI, junior Jackson Dalton scored two runs and sophomore Austin Hall scored one.

“And Ethan (Hoover) did a great job of pitching today, and Christian did a great job of coming in, closing the game,” Atkins said. “They’ve been the mainstays for us for the last three years, so they’re sort of the anchor. When they’re on, everything else kind of evolves around them.”

In 105 pitches across six innings, Hoover threw eight strikeouts. In 22 pitches across one and 2/3rd innings, Hall allowed no hits.

“Everybody made a contribution today, either in the field, defensively, or at the plate — just a great team win, great team effort,” Atkins said.

Despite Friday’s loss in the regional title game, he still felt great about how his team performed.

“I thought our kids played extremely well,” he said after the game. “I thought we played really strong. We made some terrific plays in the field. The ball was kind of hard to pick up out there when it was in the air. It was moving around quite a bit, so I thought the kids played well, defensively. Christian (Hall) did a fantastic job on the mound, couldn’t have asked any more from him from that effort.”

Hall pitched the entire game.

On offense, “we had an opportunity we didn’t take advantage of, and sometimes that’s baseball,” Atkins said.

In the top of the sixth inning, Nowlin put the ball in play, the fielder chose to go for the out at second, the effort failed and the bases were loaded with only one out on the board.

Hoover came up to bat with two outs and the bases still loaded and hit a ball deep into center field that showed good potential to be a grand slam.

“I thought it was gone,” Atkins said. “… (Ethan) had a terrific hit, it just didn’t tail off quite enough. The kid in center field made a good catch and got to give the hats off to him.”

Noting a missed opportunity on offense at a slightly different point in the game, the coach said, “We had a mental mistake on the passed ball by a base runner who should have already advanced. If he had done that, we should have already scored a run on the board.”

One pivotal play in the game came with the Chargers on defense in the bottom of the seventh. The Gladiators had a runner sliding into second. The ball arrived to Central sophomore Ben Anthony, the runner was ruled out, but then the umpire reversed his call a moment later. Riverheads spectators cited that the reversal came because Anthony had dropped the ball, but Atkins believed the drop was due to the collision of runner and baseman and that it had come after the play’s conclusion.

“We believe very strongly we had the out at second,” he said, “and my kid gets hurt after the play is over and drops the ball and just an unfortunate call — didn’t go our way.”

The coach gave strong encouragement to his players after the game.

“The kids need to hold their heads up and be proud of being here,” he said. “They belonged here, they deserved to be here and they deserve to be in the state tournament next week. They’ve just got to do something with that opportunity.”