After winning its first 25 games of the season, the South County Stallions found themselves in uncharted territory, as Luke Bondurant stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning, in the most important game of their lives.
They were down 4-2 to Lake Braddock, one of the region’s best teams, but one they had already beaten three times this season. Sophomore southpaw Thomas Rogers had just entered the game with the bases loaded and no one out, and had struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. Bondurant was quickly down, 0-2, and it appeared as though the rally was about to fizzle. But then Bondurant saw the pitch he’d been waiting a lifetime for: a hanging curve ball that he crushed to dead center field.
The ball sailed over the head of the Bruins’ centerfielder, Alex Gransback, who tripped and fell, trying to follow the ball’s scorched arc, but it made no difference, as the ball sailed over the fence for a grand slam that turned a two-run deficit into a 6-4 edge that the Stallions would not relinquish. Once given the lead, the Stallions’ starting pitcher, Evan Beal, slammed the door shut, as South County won the game 9-5, sealing its first ever Northern Region Championship.
“I’ve been slumping a little bit, I got down 0-2 and I just wanted to put a good swing on the ball, and I got a hold of it a little bit,” Bondurant said after the game. “I think it had them shook a little bit.”
Lake Braddock drew first blood in the second inning as sophomore catcher Garrett Driscoll smashed an outside fastball that bounced off the top of a Midas banner in right-center field and then dunked over the fence, with a runner on board to stake his team to an early 2-0 lead. Stallions’ designated hitter Mike Egbert ripped an R.B.I. single up the middle in the bottom of the second to cut the lead to 1, but in the next frame, the Bruins’ left fielder, Ryan Owens, smacked a double to left to score 2, to put the lead at 4-1.
At the end of the half inning, Bondurant came storming back to the dugout and yelled, “They want it more than us right now! Come on! Let’s lose our voices, let’s go!”
“I felt like they were a little dead at that moment,” Bondurant said after the game. “I wanted to amp them up because we’ve come this far, I didn’t want them to quit now. We’re 26-0; I didn’t want to be 25-1.”
Senior Mike Perez, who will attend Old Dominion next year on a baseball scholarship, cut the Bruins’ lead to 4-2 in the bottom of the third with a hard R.B.I. single down the left field line, and then in the fourth, the Stallions batted around, scoring six runs: four on Bondurant’s blast, and two more when Tyler Frazier, who is headed to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro on a baseball scholarship next year, hit a two-run home run to right, to up the lead to 8-4.
The slam was sweet vindication for Bondurant, who hoped to play Division 1 baseball, and had received scouting interest from Virginia Tech, VCU and other schools. He will attend Pitt Junior College in North Carolina next year and hopes to be picked in the M.L.B. draft in two years.
The outburst turned out to be more than enough offense for Beal, who used his repertoire of fast balls, curves and sliders to strike out 12 batters, as he went the distance to get the win. Beal’s brother, Jesse, was drafted right out of high school in 2008, and is now playing for the Frederick Keys, who are part of the Baltimore Orioles farm system. Beal has a full scholarship to play baseball at the University of South Carolina next year, but if he’s picked in next week’s M.L.B. draft, he might turn pro.
“Right now I’m excited to go to South Carolina, nothing is promised in the draft,” he said. “I have to play it by ear. It depends on whether I get the deal I want.”
After the game, Beal showed off his well-marked baseball hat, which has words and phrases he looks at before taking the mound for inspiration.
"Pound the zone. Be the best. Throw Strikes. TCB." “TCB is our motto,” he explained. “Take care of business.”
For head coach Mark Luther, that motto said it all.
“It’s tough to beat them four times, but we found a way to do it,” he said, just after being doused with a cooler full of ice water by his team. “As you can see, we have great fans and they really support us. Our students get behind us, so it means a lot to them. We say it all the time, we play for our school, we play for what’s on the front of our jerseys, and we play as hard as we can to help bring recognition to our school.”
But amidst all post-game celebration was the coach’s reminder that there was still more business to attend to. On Tuesday night, the team’s perfect record will be on the line once more, as it faces Nansemond River in the state tournament at home at 6 p.m.