Last week’s Liberty District baseball game between powerful McLean and improved South Lakes was important to both squads for different reasons. For the defending district champion Highlanders, it was an opportunity to remain unbeaten in both Northern Region and district play this season and to extend its win streak to eight games.
For the Seahawks, there were more modest, yet just as important aspirations - to continue to show improvement during a spring campaign in which South Lakes has won four games, double the amount of victories from last season.
But in Friday night’s meeting between the two district opponents in Reston, McLean took charge from the start and never looked back on way to a 12-2 win. The game was shortened to five innings as a result of the 10-run mercy rule.
“They’re just a real good club over there,” said South Lakes coach Galvin Morris, following his team’s loss to the Highlanders. “It takes a perfect game to beat a team like that.”
McLean, with the win, improved its record to 13-2. Its only losses this season came during its spring break trip to San Diego. With just a couple of weeks remaining in the regular season, McLean is perhaps the hottest team in the region and will be a force to be dealt with at the upcoming district tournament, set to begin on May 18.
South Lakes (4-12) lost its fifth straight game following a modest two-game win streak in which it had beaten both Jefferson and Marshall, the latter win coming on a no-hitter by Seahawks’ pitching ace John Beck.
South Lakes, 2-7 in the district, was scheduled to play district road games this week at Jefferson (Tuesday, May 4) and at Marshall (Friday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m.).
“Our goal is to get into the regionals,” said Morris, whose team would need a first round district tournament win to earn an automatic seeding into the following week’s 16-team region playoffs. “We still have a lot of work to do. It’s the old cliché, `take one game at a time.’ We have games this week on Tuesday and Thursday against teams we can beat if we put it together. ”
McLean, which a year ago experienced a breakthrough season in winning the district championship, is a seasoned, talented team that is pitching strong and better at the plate than it was a year ago when its season ended with a first round region playoff loss to Centreville. The Highlanders lost that region postseason game to the Wildcats, 2-0.
Centreville pitching ace Ryan Ashooh was dominant that day, holding down a McLean squad that received a solid starting pitching outing itself from Sean Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, a senior and one of the region’s top pitchers during his four-year varsity career, said McLean is hungry to return to regionals this spring and put together a nice run. The Highlanders, he said, are highly motivated to atone for last year’s region playoff loss.
“I think the most important thing that came from last year was the loss at the end of the season,” said Fitzgerald, of the defeat to Centreville that has made McLean so determined to excel and go further this season. “There’s no excuse this year. One through 23 [on the roster] – everybody is hungry. Our goal every year has been to win the region title.”
Denis Buckley, McLean’s outstanding starting catcher and the team’s No. 2 starting pitcher, said numerous members of this year’s squad have played on teams together since they were in youth baseball. Like Fitzgerald and other teammates who were a part of last year’s team, Buckley has had a difficult time wiping out the memory of last year’s season-ending setback to Centreville.
“It was very, very hard to swallow,” said Buckley. “Sean pitched a great game for us that day. It was one of the worst feelings in baseball I’ve ever had. We still talk about that game.”
Buckley believes this year’s McLean team is improved from last year.
“Our pitching and defense have been phenomenal the last couple of years,” he said. “This year, our hitting has been good. Overall, we have real good chemistry on this team and we’re all good friends.”
<b>MCLEAN DISPLAYED SOME</b> of its dominance on Friday right from the get-go by scoring 12 first inning runs to all but put the game away after its first at-bats. Fitzgerald, batting third in the Highlander order, smacked a towering, two-run homer over the left field fence to highlight the big inning. The round tripper came on his second at-bat of the inning. Other key hits included a two-run single by Chris Russo, run-scoring singles from Josh Sborz, Jordan Ghanam and Ethan Gaba, and a two-run double into right center field by Colin Cannon.
It was a tough night for South Lakes’ starting pitcher Will Sweet, a junior who has been one of his team’s better players this season. The Seahawks did get good relief pitching in the game from junior David Odlen (2 scoreless innings), who had an outstanding curve working in fanning four batters; Kevin Ball (no hits over 1 inning); and Beck, the team’s starting pitching ace who worked a perfect fifth inning.
At the plate, South Lakes had four hits on the night. Ball belted an RBI double into deep center field during McLean’s two-run fourth inning. Sweet, who had opened the inning off with an infield single, scored on the extra base hit. McLean’s other base hits came in the bottom of the first inning – an infield single from Ryan Forrest and a double by Wilfredo Corps-Ortiz.
McLean’s Fitzgerald (6-0 record) earned the win on the mound, allowing two hits over three shutout innings with three strikeouts. Billy Heberton and Sborz both threw one inning apiece in relief. Sborz allowed no hits.
Morris credited his team with playing hard even after falling way behind.
“They could have quit, but they didn’t,” he said. “They still competed.”
McLean was scheduled to play at Madison on Tuesday, April 4 of this week. This Friday night, April 7, the Highlanders will host Fairfax at 7.