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Jul, 2022

FAIRFAX NATIONAL BEATS THE BEST DURING RUN TO STATE TOURNAMENT SEMIFINALS

FAIRFAX NATIONAL BEATS THE BEST DURING RUN TO STATE TOURNAMENT SEMIFINALS 

by Ben Nuckols


Jayden Parker didn’t hesitate. 

The fastest player on the Fairfax National Little League All-Stars was on second base with one out in the first inning of the team’s state tournament pool play game against Loudoun South American. Wyatt Nicholson hit a grounder back to the pitcher, who threw to second. The shortstop bobbled the ball as Sam Stewart slid in, and the umpire called Sam safe. While Loudoun’s shortstop argued, third-base coach Mike Stewart sent Jayden, who dashed home ahead of the throw to tie the game 1-1. 

Fairfax National continued to outhustle and outthink Loudoun South on the way to a 3-2 victory that exemplified the team’s smart, surgical approach under manager Matt Oliveri and coaches Stewart and Lew Clewell. While Fairfax National ultimately fell short in the semifinals of the state tournament in Poquoson, the team went home proud of a performance that left no doubt it was one of Virginia’s best. 

Loudoun South American won the state title for the third time in the past four tournaments, but this year, it never beat Fairfax National. 

The team arrived in Poquoson for the state tournament after a dominant performance in District 10. For most of the team, it was the second consecutive trip to states. Ten of the 14 players on the 2022 roster won the state championship last year in the 9-11 division. 

Expectations were high, and the team’s play reflected it. Winning under the mercy rule was routine for Fairfax National, and in its first two pool play games, the team continued that trend. 

The tournament opener was delayed by a day because of thunderstorms, and Fairfax National had pent-up energy when it took the field on July 16 against Richlands. Cole Frank led off with a walk, Jayden drove him in with a single, and Sam singled to score Jayden. Starting pitcher Hendrik Van der Walt added a sacrifice fly to help his own cause, and he took the mound with a 3-0 lead. 

In the second, Cole hit a one-out double and scored on Jayden’s single, Sam doubled, Wyatt hit a two-run single and pinch-hitter Tommy Holley lined a single to center to make it 7-0. Hendrik breezed through the second inning, and from there, Oliveri focused on getting some reps for his deep, 14-player roster. Wyatt and Jack Taets each worked an inning to complete Fairfax National’s one-hit shutout. 

Jayden finished the game 4-for-4, Sam was 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and three RBIs, and Cole went 2-for-2, both doubles. Wyatt and Will Zech each drove in two runs. 

The rain-altered schedule meant Fairfax began its long Sunday with a morning game against Cave Spring. Will, usually Fairfax’s starting catcher, began on the mound throwing to backup Billy Nuckols, his regular-season batterymate. Will struck out the side in the first inning, getting the second two batters by hitting Billy’s mitt for called third strikes, and Fairfax was on its way. 

Jayden and Sam continued their scorching starts to the tournament with first-inning singles, and both came around to score to make it 2-0. Will extended his dominance by striking out two batters in the second and two more in the third before Sam came in and finished the inning with another called strike three. 

In the bottom of the third, Tommy lined a bases-loaded single that made it 5-0, and Wyatt’s two-run single extended the lead to 9-0. 

Cave Spring didn’t have a baserunner until there were two outs in the fourth, and he wasn’t on base for long. Its batter hit a grounder just inside the bag at first for a double, but right fielder Jaxen Clewell raced to the ball and fired it to second baseman Jack, who relayed to Wyatt at third to nail the runner. 

Shaun Ryan got the last two outs on the mound for Fairfax in the fifth, and in the bottom half, Wyatt’s RBI grounder gave Fairfax a 10-0, walk-off win. 

The team returned that night to play Loudoun South in a game that didn’t start until nearly 9 p.m. It was worth the wait. 

Even before his mad dash home during the argument at second base, Jayden had put his stamp on the game by pitching his way out of a jam in the first inning. He gave up an RBI single before striking out consecutive batters. 

After Jayden scored the tying run on his heads-up scamper, Will scorched a two-out double to left to give Fairfax a 2-1 lead. Loudoun tied it in the third on an RBI grounder, but Fairfax pulled ahead in the bottom half when Jayden and Sam led off with singles and Wyatt hit a run-scoring grounder. 

The question for Oliveri was how to close out the game while managing the workload for his deep pitching staff. Liam Houff, one of the team’s most reliable starters, needed time on the mound ahead of elimination play, so he relieved Jayden with two outs in the fourth and ended the inning on a routine grounder. 

With some help from the Fairfax defense, Liam closed it out from there. With one out and a runner on first, Loudoun’s batter hit a grounder up the middle and second baseman Jayden made a spectacular stop in shallow center. Although Fairfax didn’t record the out, his play kept the baserunner from advancing to third. 

That proved critical when the next batter hit a flyball to shallow left-center, and left fielder Billy dashed forward, slid to the ground and made a game-saving catch. Billy made the play with a swollen and discolored ring finger on his glove hand that he had injured while blocking a ball in the dirt at catcher in the earlier game. Only after playing the rest of the tournament did he learn the finger was broken. 

In the bottom of the sixth, Loudoun led off with a sharp line drive to second that Jayden calmly snagged for the first out. With two outs, Cole caught a flyball to deep center and Fairfax gathered at second base to celebrate a thrilling win. 

Fairfax began elimination play against Atlee with ace Wyatt on the mound, and Atlee sent Wyatt’s first pitch to deep left, where Billy tracked it down for the out. Wyatt cruised from there, ultimately retiring the first nine Atlee batters on 29 pitches with five strikeouts. 

Meantime, the Fairfax offense went to work again. Cole led off with a line-drive double and scored on a double steal, and Will made it 2-0 with an RBI single. 

In the second inning, Billy led off with a double to deep left, Ryan Oliveri drove him in with a single, and Jaxen executed a perfect sacrifice bunt, setting up Cole’s sacrifice fly that made it 4-0. In the third, Will and pinch-hitter Brennan Bardolf had RBI singles and Jack lined a sacrifice fly that put Fairfax ahead 7-0. 

The rest of the game wasn’t quite as pretty, but Fairfax held on. 

Atlee scored its first two runs on Fairfax errors in the fifth, and a two-out, two-run double got Atlee within 7-4. Ryan, who was unavailable to pitch earlier in the tournament because of a balky knee, came in to record the final out of the frame. Then he worked his way through a tense last inning. Ryan walked the first two batters, bounced back with a strikeout, then loaded the bases with another walk. But with the pressure at its highest, Ryan came through, striking out the next to batters looking -- the final one on a 3-2 pitch -- to preserve a gritty 7-4 victory for Fairfax. 

Fairfax can look back at its 10-7 loss to Vienna American in the semifinals and say it outplayed Vienna for all but one half of one inning -- the bottom of the third. Some uncharacteristic defensive lapses and a few excellent pitches by starting pitcher Liam that weren’t called for strikes led to an eight-run, two-out rally for Vienna that turned its 4-2 deficit into a 10-4 lead. 

Jack relieved Liam, got the final out of the third and turned in the pitching performance of his life from there, allowing no runs on one hit in 2 1/3 innings and striking out a Vienna batter who homered in his first at-bat, prompting Oliveri to call for intentional walks his next two times up. 

Fairfax nearly achieved a two-out miracle in the sixth when four consecutive singles by Jayden, Sam, Wyatt and Will made it 10-7, but that was as close as it got. 

The pain from the only loss in 10 tournament games for Fairfax will fade quickly for this close-knit bunch of players, who later in the day were already chatting excitedly about their future on the 90-foot field. The bonds they built playing together for years in Fairfax Little League will endure. And they ended their Little League careers knowing they played hard, played fair and competed with -- and beat -- the very best. 


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