South County catcher Mike Perez sat on top of the bench inside the first-base dugout at Westfield High School with his head buried in his hands, trying to hide his pain.
To Perez’s right sat pitcher Evan Beal, who vented emotion with a towel around his head. Between the two Stallions seniors sat head coach Mark Luther, hat off and fingers interlocked, looking as though he was trying to figure out how a team that averaged more than 10 runs per contest managed just three in the biggest game of the year.
The South County baseball team lost to Great Bridge, 5-3, on Saturday, June 11, in the AAA Virginia state championship game. The Stallions entered Saturday as an undefeated run-scoring machine. After defeating Lake Braddock, 9-5, in the Northern Region championship game on June 3, Luther said, "I think I’ve said it before: we eventually figure you out. You’re not going to get [our lineup] for seven innings. If you do, we tip our hat to you."
For 5-1/3 innings, Great Bridge starting pitcher Connor Jones shut down the South County lineup. Other than Perez, who belted a solo home run and a double high off the center field fence, none of the Stallions consistently solved Jones, who allowed three runs — two earned — on six hits. Cooper Jones pitched the final 1-2/3 innings to earn the save.
"He didn’t change anything, he didn’t do anything different," Luther said of Connor Jones. "We just didn’t mentally make the change like we’ve been doing all year. He did a great job, give him credit. He kept dumping change ups in and we kept beating them into the ground. … The fact that we only scored three runs I think was more the disbelief part of it. Obviously, in baseball, you can run up against a guy who is just better than you that day, but even if he is better than us we feel like we’re going to be able to score more than three."
Trailing 5-2, South County started to rally in the bottom of the sixth, but managed just one run. Alex Carrington led off with a single and reached second on a wild pitch, but was later thrown out at third on a Luke Bondurant chopper to the shortstop. Perez just missed a home run, doubling high off the wall in center field, but his courtesy runner was stranded at third. Bondurant scored on a wild pitch, but it wasn’t enough.
"He was locating his pitches well, keeping it down, making us chase a little bit," Bondurant said of Connor Jones. "It felt like we were just trying a little bit too hard, trying to do too much with the ball. It just didn’t come out the way we wanted it to."
South County standout pitcher Tyler Frazier suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder while playing shortstop during the semifinals on June 10 and wasn’t able to pitch in Saturday’s championship game. With Beal having pitched Friday, junior left-hander Jake Josephs got the start and pitched a complete game. He allowed five runs in the first three innings, but settled down and surrendered just one hit during the final four frames.
"He did a great job," Luther said. "We were expecting four [innings] out of him, just going to try to steal four and then go to another left hander and finish with Mike. He was phenomenal. He just bore down. He’s competitive. He did way more than what we anticipated he would."
Trailing 5-1, Perez cut the South County deficit to three with a solo home run to left-center in the fourth. The senior finished 2 for 3 in his final game in a Stallions uniform.
"He’s a great player," Luther said. "We feel like he’s one of the best players in the state Virginia and he kept proving it today. He was good behind the dish. He was awesome at the plate again. He’s just a great player and he loves playing the game. He plays it every day and he plays it hard every day."
South County finished the season with a 28-1 record, a Northern Region championship and a Patriot District title.
"They had a great season," Luther said. "It’s one of the better seasons in the history of the Northern Region. You can’t really say anything to them. They’re beating themselves up and hurt more than what I can say to help it out. I just thanked them for everything that they’ve done [and I’m] thankful to be a part of it. … It certainly helps going through this experience, to know that you’ve been there and you know what it’s like. You have a taste for it and you want to try to get back."