Brian Hoffman column: Who saw this coming?

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Who saw this coming?

Who would have predicted that Salem High would win the state baseball championship this year? Maybe the same guy who picked the Eagles to win the Super Bowl last fall, or the guy who said the Las Vegas Golden Knights would be playing for the Stanley Cup.

Certainly expectations weren’t overly high when the season opened with rainy weather the second week of March. After all, the Spartans graduated their best pitcher, Trevor Austin, from last year’s team that often started eight seniors. That team finished 14-7.

This year was a whole new ballgame, so to speak. The only full-time starter returning was shortstop Joseph Quinn, who seemed to fit in better with last year’s team of mostly Spartans who also played on the 2015 and ’16 state championship football teams. Noah Beckley, Riley Fox, Vincent Pinello, and Landon Hudson all played football with Quinn in the fall and played baseball in the spring.

“The good thing about football is they knew how to win,” said McMillan. “And they were loose because they were just playing baseball to have fun.”

Quinn looked around this spring and saw a clubhouse full of new faces. He was the leader by default, and he welcomed the challenge.

“As one of the only returning players it fell on me to be a leader,” he said. “As the year went along it sort of trickled down to the younger players.”

McMillan wasn’t sure what he had back in March. He knew he had some talent, but he didn’t know if he had a ballclub.

“They were a bunch of individuals,” he said. “I knew we had more talent than we had last year, but I didn’t know if this group would play together. I didn’t know what kind of character we had.”

The Spartans got off to a surprising start. In fact, they won their first 11 games in a row, going undefeated in the months of March and April. Their first taste of defeat was a 5-4 loss at Pulaski County on May 2nd, followed by a 12-11 loss to Hidden Valley two days later.

“The Pulaski game was like the Blacksburg game in football,” said Quinn, referring to Salem’s last football loss before winning their final 10 games and the state championship. “It not only broke our win streak but it humbled us.”

The Spartans finished the regular season 14-3. They didn’t get to play in the district tournament when a week of rain washed out the meaningless affair.

Salem was the second seed in the Region 4D tournament behind Liberty Christian Academy, but when eighth seeded William Byrd upset LCA in the first round Salem was guaranteed of playing the whole tournament at home. The Spartans came from behind to beat E.C. Glass, 7-5, in the opener, then downed Jefferson Forest in a key semifinal game to clinch a state berth. In the region final Lingenfelter pitched the Spartans over Amherst, 3-2, with a four hitter to give Salem a first round home game in the state.

The Salemites beat Woodgrove in the state quarterfinal behind Honaker, who gave up a two run homer in the first inning but settled down to pitch one-hit shutout ball the rest of the way. Lingenfelter beat Fauquier on Friday and Honaker was the winner in Saturday’s walk-off, 2-1 state championship win over Jamestown.

Next year, most of the lineup returns. Honaker(8-0) and Lingenfelter(5-0) will both be back to pitch and Salem will lose three starters, Quinn, firstbasman and pitcher Hunter Clifton and rightfielder Austin Sowers. Another senior, Brayden “Buddah” Overstreet, was mostly used as a sub and pinch-runner, but McMillan says he’ll be dearly missed as well.

“Overstreet and Quinn were our leaders,” said McMillan. “Buddah didn’t play a lot but he kept everyone upbeat in the dugout. He was always talking and encouraging, and I can’t say enough about how much that meant to our team.”

The Spartans are being sized for state championship rings this week, and Overstreet and Quinn will now have four each, three for football and one for baseball.

“I’ll cherish each and every one, as well as the brotherhood and bonds I’ve made playing sports,” said Quinn, who will likely walk on the baseball team at James Madison University next year. “This one is special since it’s the first one in program history.”

While the Spartans were longshots at the beginning of the season, they were playing as well as anyone at the end. Salem had just one error in the six region and playoff games and played like the better team every game.

McMillan was assisted on the varsity by David Mitchell and Andy Hayes. Andy did a terrific job getting the Spartans in front of the public with his gamedaymagazine web site, featuring photos by Jodi Fetrow.

Jayvee coaches Jimmy Winters and Dan Stallard joined the team for the post-season, and Stallard had a special insight into the program. He played for Salem High under coach Sandy Hill as a student, and his son Parker was the starting leftfielder on the championship team. Dan coached many of these boys in travel ball, and he’ll be the first to say he didn’t see this coming.

“I thought we had players who could win a state championship, but I didn’t think it would be this year,” he said. “I thought next year would be the year.”

And it still could be.