A team of Northern Virginia high school baseball players recently visited the Dominican Republic on a goodwill tour playing local teams and experiencing the Dominican culture.
Teams from other parts of the U.S. have made similar trips with mixed results on the field.
Team Virginia swept all six of its games but more importantly came away with a greater appreciation for the opportunities and comforts of growing up in America.
The squad was led by area high school coaches Mark "Pudge" Gjormand, Morgan Spencer and Justin Counts and included 15 players who played for eight Washington area public and private high schools last Spring.
The players were: Ryan Ashooh, Connor Bach, Chris Campbell, Nick Amano-Dolan, Eli Facenda, Nate Favero, Jonny Graham, Matt Moore, Sean Murphy, Mike Norton, Kevin Pence, Daniel Shill, Nathan Slater, Josh Smith and Joey Zarella.
THE TEAM opened the trip with two games in Santiago at a modern stadium that is home to the premier team in the Dominican winter professional league.
Then, they traveled to Santo Domingo for three games at Centro Olimpico, a once grand multi-sport facility that has fallen into disrepair.
The tour concluded with a game on a neighborhood field in the small town of Cabarete that was Norman Rockwell in the Caribbean. As the quality of the fields diminished, the venue itself took on more character and the home fans became more animated.
Team Virginia won its opening game 2-0 behind a combined no hitter from Connor Bach and Ryan Ashooh. Mike Norton drove in the game's first run and Bach stole home for the second run. Bach and Chris Campbell had two hits apiece.
In a rematch the next day, the U.S. romped to a 15-3 victory. Daniel Shill and Eli Facenda combined on a four hitter. Josh Smith had three hits and Kevin Pence collected a pair. Smith, Jonny Graham and Sean Murphy drove in three runs apiece.
Games 3 and 4 were rain-shortened. Team Virginia was leading 3-1 when a downpour ended Game 3 in the third inning. Joey Zarella did the pitching. Zarella, Eli Facenda and Nathan Slater each drove in a run.
Rather than resuming the game, the opposing coach opted for a rematch the next day. Once again the U.S. was ahead 7-3 when rain ended the contest in the fourth inning. Facenda and Bach took care of the pitching. Bach and Slater both scored a pair of runs.
Game 5 was played later that day with Team Virginia winning 7-1. Matt Moore and Ashooh pitched three innings apiece and Shill closed the game. Ashooh recorded 8 of 9 outs on strikeouts. Slater had two hits including the only USA home run of the trip.
THE CLIMACTIC GAME of the trip was also the most thrilling. Nick Amano-Dolan singled home a run in the sixth to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Zarella pitched brilliantly, but defensive lapses allowed the home team to score three unearned runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Bach came in to finish the sixth which ended dramatically when right fielder Moore gunned down a runner at the plate for the second time in the game.
Zarella started the seventh with a single and after three walks and two outs produced one run, Pence drove in the tying and go ahead runs with a bad hop single over the second baseman's head.
Bach closed the game out picking a runner off first and striking out the last two hitters. The confident Dominicans were stunned as Team Virginia snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. After the game, the victors gave their USA hats and jerseys to the Dominican players.
Some Americans even gave away their spikes, bats and gloves. All were received gratefully by the home team.
"The Dominican Republic is one of the top baseball countries in the world," said Gjormand.
"We didn't know what to expect, and when we took the field in a pro stadium in Santiago, there were a lot of nerves. We knew it was still the same game though, and we played with discipline and fundamentals throughout the trip. In Santo Domingo, we entered the arena, the heart of Dominican baseball. The finale in Cabarete was the craziest, coolest environment I've ever coached in. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit was like winning the state championship. Literally giving them the shirts off our backs after the game was a terrific gesture by our players. I'm real proud of the effort our guys gave and the way they carried themselves. They were a credit to their families, Northern Virginia and the USA."