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Jul, 2021

Fairfax National 9-11 Majors All-Stars go to work, come home as state champs

KING GEORGE, Va. -- Center fielder Cole Frank got a good jump on the sinking line drive and sprinted to his left. A base hit would score two runs and put the tying run on base in the sixth inning of the state championship game.

The lefty dropped to his knee, extended his arm to his backhand side and squeezed the ball as he tumbled to the turf. Cole’s teammates tossed their gloves in the air and mobbed him behind second base. Pitcher Sam Stewart put his hands on his head in disbelief. Catcher Billy Nuckols, the last to reach the sweaty throng, dropped to his knees on the infield dirt, his arms raised.

Fairfax National Little League had its first state title.

The 9-11 Majors All-Stars used superb pitching and defense, timely hitting, and key contributions from every player on the 13-man roster to win the 2021 state championship. The title celebration on July 14 capped a joyous six-week run for the close-knit team, which practiced diligently throughout the summer and committed to coach Matt Oliveri’s plan to maximize its strengths.

The season began with a warning. Coach Oliveri emphasized to players and their families that All-Star tournaments were nothing like the regular season. There would be a nine-person lineup. Everyone would get at least one at-bat per game, but playing time would not be distributed equally. Defense was important, especially in the outfield.

The players accepted their roles and listened to one of coach Oliveri’s catchphrases: “Go to work.” But they had way too much fun to consider it a job.

The state tournament began the same way it ended: with Sam on the mound. Changing speeds and working up and down in the strike zone, Sam overpowered the lineup from King William Little League, striking out all six batters he faced.

Jack Taets relieved Sam in the third inning and ran the streak to eight by punching out his first two batters. King William put three balls in play, but no one reached base as Fairfax pitched a combined perfect game in the 13-0, four-inning blowout. Sam went 3-for-4 at the plate with a triple and scored three runs.

The lights-out pitching continued the next day against Clarke County Little League. Hard-throwing Ryan Oliveri struck out seven in three innings of one-hit ball. He also had two RBI singles, the second in a five-run fourth inning. Billy followed with a two-run double, stole third and scored on a passed ball to give Fairfax a 10-0 walk-off win. Shaun Ryan pitched the last inning of the combined two-hitter.

On the final day of pool play, the team returned to sweltering Barnesfield Park -- on the shores of the Potomac River, across the street from a Navy installation that provided a booming soundtrack to the intense action on the field -- and faced its toughest opponent yet, York County Little League. Starting pitcher Liam Houff challenged the powerful York lineup with his fastball and limited York to two runs in three innings. Hendrik Van Der Walt and Sam blanked York from there, but Fairfax couldn’t convert its scoring opportunities and lost 2-0.

If there was a good time to lose, that was it, because Fairfax was already assured of advancing in the tournament. But the defeat meant the team did not earn a bye into the semifinals. Fairfax would need to manage its pitching staff carefully to get through three games in two days.

For the first elimination game, against Cave Spring Little League, coach Oliveri gave the ball to Ryan. In temperatures reaching the mid-90s, Ryan went the distance, throwing 83 pitches in five innings and sweating through two heat-related delays. He allowed two hits and struck out 10. The last came with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth. Ryan pounded his fist into his glove as he left the mound.

Two batters later, the game was over. Cole singled, advanced to second on a passed ball and scored on a single by Sam, giving Fairfax a 10-0 victory. Sam went 3-for-4 with a triple and Cole had two hits as Fairfax got contributions throughout the lineup, finishing with 12 hits. Pinch-hitter Levi Ledbetter had a two-out, two-run single in the second inning that made it 6-0.

In the semifinal matchup with Louisa County Little League, it was Liam’s turn in the rotation, and the control artist threw 40 of his 55 pitches for strikes in a four-inning, two-hit shutout. The defense behind him was flawless, with third baseman Hendrik, second baseman Shaun, center fielder Cole and right fielder Tommy Holley making plays that kept Louisa from scoring.

The Fairfax lineup also had its best inning of the tournament, sending 10 batters to the plate and scoring six runs in the third. Hendrik had a two-run single, Cole drove in Hendrik with a double and Ryan had a two-run single. Ryan was 2 for 3 with four RBIs while Hendrik finished 3 for 4 and drove in three.

The bench helped manufacture the game-ending run in the fourth. Pinch-hitter Charlie Young drew a leadoff walk and, four batters later, Hendrik drove in pinch-runner Jack to make it 10-0.

Fairfax took it easy while Dulles Little League closed out a 3-2, seven-inning victory over York in the other semifinal. The boys were physically conditioned to handle the doubleheader in part because of assistant coach Gary Frank’s drills in practice, which included running up and down the stairs of the parking garage at Burke Field. And the fired-up team also followed coach Frank’s instructions by cheering in unison in the dugout to gain a psychological advantage.

Fairfax jumped on Dulles early. Hendrik led off the game with a walk, Cole followed with a double and, with two outs, Billy lined the first pitch he saw to right field to give Fairfax a 1-0 lead.

From there, Sam and the Fairfax defense took over. Right fielder Jaxen Clewell made a running, shoestring catch with two on and two out in the first.

Shortstop Hendrik ranged to his left to snag a line drive in the second. Third baseman Ryan followed by fielding a tricky slow roller. And second baseman Shaun made a diving stop in the hole, spun and threw to first baseman Zach Lappe to end the frame.

Zach made a long stretch on a throw from Hendrik to end the third. Catchers Tommy and Billy held Dulles’ baserunners in check.

But Dulles’ defense was just as good, and it was still 1-0 heading into the sixth. Billy led off with a hard grounder that Dulles’ third baseman couldn’t field cleanly. Pinch-hitter Levi singled to move Billy to third. Third-base coach Mike Stewart told Billy to break for home if the Dulles catcher threw to second base. On the first pitch, Levi took off for second. Dulles cut off the throw and fired back to the plate, but Billy slid around the tag to put Fairfax ahead 2-0.

Zach hit a grounder to the right side, advancing Levi to third. Then, with two outs, Jaxen broke out of a slump at the best possible time, smacking one up the middle to make it 3-0.

Coach Oliveri stuck with Sam on the mound. Dulles led off with a single and, after a bunt single and an error, had runners on second and third with one out. Sam called timeout and the entire infield joined him at the mound, where they reminded each other that the runners on base didn’t matter and they only needed two outs.

Sam worked the count to 0-2, Billy set up on the outside corner and Sam hit the glove for a called third strike. Then Cole made the dive that gave Fairfax National the state title.

After the celebration, coach Oliveri gave a game ball to Sam and apologized to the pitchers he didn’t end up using. There were no complaints. Every player on the roster contributed on offense and made plays in the field during the tournament run. In practice, they drilled on details and situational awareness. One example of their diligence: Every team in the state tournament tried to bunt against Fairfax, but the only team to reach base on a bunt was runner-up Dulles -- in the last inning of the title game.

Fairfax outscored its opponents 46-2 in the state tournament, with five shutouts. Including the four-game district tournament, the team went 9-1, scored 85 runs and allowed eight. Fairfax National won a state title in the Seniors division in 2002, but this was the league's first state banner on a 60-foot field.

The 9-11 team went to work. The players and coaches came home with medals, a banner to hang at Burke Field and lifelong memories.

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