Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016: The Year In Sports

Here is our look back at 2016 in Sports in Hanover County as it appeared in the December 29th edition of the Herald Progress....


As 2016 winds down, we remember a year of triumph and tragedy, where teams made history, blazed new trails, and followed familiar ones. And when one school faced unimaginable tragedy, another school, and an entire community, rallied to help mourn, comfort and support. 

At Randolph-Macon, three teams took center stage in 2016, beginning with baseball, as a talented senior class helped lead the Yellow Jackets to the most successful season in program history. 

Their 35-8-1 record included an Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Championship after defeating rival Hampden-Sydney in the tournament final, the school's first-ever win in an NCAA Tournament, as the Yellow Jackets advanced all the way to the Mideast Regional Championship game, and, for the Class of 2016, 108 wins in their four-year tenure at Hugh Stephens Field at Estes Park, becoming the first class to win 100 games for Randolph-Macon.

In the fall, the volleyball team, despite losing a talented senior class of their own, loaded up on freshmen, teamed with returning standouts Samantha Sallade, Erin Quinn, Mariah Clark and Colleen Beaver, and successfully defended their ODAC Championship, sweeping the conference in both the regular season and tournament and clinching another bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2016 came at Day Field, where Randolph-Macon football, coming off a 4-6 season in 2015 and picked to finish tied for fifth in the ODAC, became only the second team in program history to win nine games in a season.

Behind an historically stingy defense and the rushing attack of sophomore Tre Frederick, the Yellow Jackets won the ODAC Championship for the first time since 2008 with a 6-1 conference record and a 9-1 mark overall, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, seeing their season conclude in Baltimore with a first round loss to Johns Hopkins. 

Head Coach Pedro Arruza won Virginia State Coach of The Year, College Division, from the Virginia Sports Information Directors, while five players earned First Team honors, including Frederick, defensive standouts Eric Long and Cole Burdette. offensive lineman Greg Castle and kicker Seth Yurgel.

On the softball field, Patrick Henry graduate, and now Randolph-Macon alumnus Madison Gilman, made history, becoming the first Yellow Jacket softball player ever to earn an All-American honor, named to two separate teams after leading the Yellow Jackets to 117 wins over four years, the most in a four-year period in program history, which included the team's first ODAC Championship in 2015.

At Patrick Henry, it was a fall season to remember, as the best autumn for the Patriots in many years was capped off by the school's first team state championship in any sport in 22 years. 

The young guns of Patriot boys volleyball, after losing to county rival Atlee in the regular season and conference playoffs, found the formula to besting the Raiders, winning in the sectional tournament to clinch not only a 5A State Tournament bid, but a home game in the state semifinals, where Patrick Henry rallied to beat Maury in five sets. Facing multiple-time defending state champion Princess Anne in the championship, Patrick Henry overpowered their opponents, winning the title in a three-set sweep.

Joining boys volleyball with successful seasons were field hockey, who, too, found a way to beat Atlee for the first time, which clinched an historic berth to the 5A North Region Tournament for the Patriots, a program that struggled to win a match just a few years ago. Midfielder Aidan Rossman and goalkeeper Taqiyah Chernesky each earned Second Team Group 5A All-State Honors from the Virginia High School League (VHSL).

On the gridiron, Patrick Henry defeated county rivals Hanover and Atlee for the first time since 2006 and 2008 respectively en route to an 8-4 season that included both their first playoff win since 2007 and first playoff home game since 2001.

Raider Nation had plenty to cheer about at Atlee, a school which experienced new beginnings and familiar travels. The spring was dominated by both softball and boys lacrosse, as both teams sought a return to Fairfax and their respective 5A State Tournaments. 

For softball, a deeply experienced team found its biggest challenge right down the street as Atlee and Lee-Davis battled first for county supremacy, then, after each advanced through their respective conference and region tournaments in dramatic fashion, the Raiders and Confederates found themselves paired in one 5A State Semifinal June 10th. Using their experience from the 2015 championship run to its highest potential, Atlee powered past Lee-Davis on the strength of three-run home runs by Raine Wilson and Casey Barrett, then used a Barrett home run the next day to spark a 5-0 win over Hickory, the same time they defeated a year earlier in the finals, to repeat as 5A State Champions.

On the same weekend just three miles away, Atlee boys lacrosse looked to erase the disappointment of a state final defeat in 2015, and had a chance to win early in overtime against Briar Woods. But the Raiders shot failed, and Briar Woods found the back of the net, and Atlee settled for runner-up status again in a 9-8 loss that saw the Raiders for overtime with two goals in the final minutes of regulation.

The Atlee Football Experience gained a new leader, as Matt Gray moved from the Randolph-Macon coaching staff to take the helm of the Raiders, who won five games and clinched a postseason berth in Gray's inaugural season.

The road well traveled was also a theme at Hanover High School, as the baseball team, absolutely loaded with talented arms on the mound, went through 2016 without losing a game in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Hawks took a 23-1 record into their June 11th 4A State Championship Game against Liberty Christian confident of winning their third state title in a four-year span, but having no idea what it would take on that hot, humid afternoon to accomplish it.

Leading 7-1 after five innings and beginning to taste another trophy, Hanover watched in shock as Liberty Christian pounded the usually reliable pitching staff for eight runs in the sixth inning to take a 9-7 lead.

"Nothing was going right in the top of the sixth, but we had to keep our composure and mentality," recalled then-senior starter Grey Lyttle.

The Hawks proceeded to compose a six-run sixth inning rally of their own to retake the lead at 13-9, then hold on in the seventh as Tyler Morgan, who couldn't pitch a year earlier due to arm surgery, got the final strikeout to preserve a wild 13-12 victory and another Hanover state title.

Also in the spring, the Hanover boys lacrosse team tasted June lacrosse for the first time, advancing to both the 4A South Region Final and the 4A State Tournament for the very first time. Individually, Hanover girls soccer player Sabrina Hernandez made history, too, as the rising senior played for the United State Women's Deaf Soccer Team as they swept to victory in the 2016 Deaf World Cup played in Italy. Hernandez, who was also a member of the 2013 gold-medal team at the Deaflympics, scored her first international goal in a 4-1 win over Poland.

At Lee-Davis, softball certainly made their mark, qualifying for the state tournament for the first time since winning it all in 2011, while in February, Hayden Keener became the only state individual wrestling champion from Hanover County, capturing the 5A State Championship at 120 pounds with a 6-3 win over Kaz Gootee of Massaponax. Lee-Davis football continued to rebuild the winning tradition with an 8-2 regular season which included sweeping their three county rivals, winning the mythical county championship with a 14-7 Tomato Bowl triumph at Patrick Henry November 4th.

Swimmer Molly Sheffield repeated as a 5A State Champion for Lee-Davis, as did Ted Schubert for Patrick Henry and Olivia Fisher for Atlee. Sheffield and Schubert spent a portion of their summers competing at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha.

But 2016 will perhaps be best remembered for how the Confederates responded to the tragic events of April 23rd, when senior, and football player, Dylan Ballard was killed in an automobile accident along with 2011 Lee-Davis graduate Elliott Hinton. Immediately, Dylan's uniform number, #28, could be seen everywhere on campus, painted on fields, written on wrist tape by softball players. 

Six nights later, when rival Atlee came to Lee-Davis for baseball, softball and soccer games, the usual "Rivalry Night" became a night for compassion, grieving, and learning. Atlee's softball team presented Lee-Davis' squad with a huge banner signed by Raider students supporting the Confederate student body, while wearing orange ribbons in their hair, a nod to a Lee-Davis color.

Then, as sports has done countless times, three games across the Lee-Davis complex began a healing process that continues as 2017 draws near, reminding Hanover County that, no matter how much fun we derive from the games people play, and the in-county rivalries that exist, we are at our best when we are together, rising above the challenges that real life can provide.

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