RICHMOND—They bonded over heaping portions of pasta and a steady diet of ESPN baseball programming.
They peppered one another with punchlines until everyone was in on the joke.
Somewhere along the way, thanks to twice-weekly hangouts hosted by Stafford’s Baker or McAlister families, teammates became teflon.
“That’s what keeps us from falling apart,” senior Mike Tolson explained.
It explains why, when Stafford reliever Gunther Braendel watched a two-run home run vanish into a backdrop of red-clad Mills Godwin fans in the sixth inning of Friday’s Class 5 final, the Indians’ state title aspirations didn’t disappear along with the baseball.
It explains how a pitcher not yet eligible for a learner’s permit recovered to put Stafford back in the driver’s seat for a championship.
And it explains why Tucker Sullivan knew that all he needed was a base hit. When Sullivan laced a line drive to right field, scoring Kaz Jordan for the winning run in a 4–3 victory, he guaranteed those links will endure long after the Indians walked off the University of Richmond’s Pitt Field as state champions—the first in Stafford County history.
“This is going to go beyond high school,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to be brothers forever.”
But before the Indians could make memories, they had to forget.
“I told some parents early in the year, ‘we go as far as Robbie Baker takes us,’ ” Stafford coach Tommy Harrison said.
On Friday, Baker carried the Indians to within six outs of a title. At times overshadowed by hard-throwing teammates Tolson and Sullivan, Baker perturbed the Eagles’ lineup with a dancing two-seamer and mastery of his curveball and change-up, allowing just two hits.
Stafford took a 2–1 lead into the top of the sixth inning, when Baker reached his pitch limit. The Indians turned to Braendel, a 14-year-old freshman who’d seen action in just four games coming into Friday.
It’s doubtful Mills Godwin’s Noah Cornwell knew any of that, but he nonetheless took advantage of the situation by launching a 3–2 offering 345 feet to right-center and taking a 3–2 lead.
“Normally when that happens to me, I just don’t look—but I did that time,” Braendel said.
Still, Mills Godwin coach John Fletcher advised his players not to sneak any premature glances at the championship trophy. Fletcher and Harrison are good friends and former rivals from when both coached in the Richmond area.
“Our kids knew when we hit that home run, the game wasn’t over,” Fletcher said. “We knew coming in that they were a gritty, scrappy team.”
Braendel retired the next three batters to get the Indians into the dugout down one, and Mike Tolson led off with an opposite-field single that took a fortuitous hop off the turf. Before the Eagles’ right fielder Noah Berringer could react, that ball was rolling to the wall and Tolson was standing safely on third.
Two batters later, Joe Tolson (no relation save for the aforementioned fraternity) grounded out to first timidly enough that Mike Tolson had time to barrel home, scraping the plate with the fingertips of his left hand. Tolson scored Stafford’s first run on a similar headfirst slide. He typically avoids the maneuver for safety reasons, but on Friday he made an exception.
“I’d break a finger,” Tolson said. “I’d do anything to get that ring.”
Caleb McAlister and Jimmy Baker supplied RBI singles for the Indians, who captured the school’s first spring title since 1982 (softball).
When Jordan crossed home for the winning run, shreds of multi-colored tissue paper rained down from the third-base bleachers packed with supporters.
The parade was still raging when Stafford’s team bus exited Interstate 95 at Centreport Parkway, where it was intercepted by a pair of sheriff’s deputies offering a police escort.
“It’s what a state championship should be, and that’s how it felt,” Sullivan said.