SHS diamond underdogs make improbable run to state semifinals
Published 10:22 pm Tuesday, June 6, 2023
By Matthew Hatfield
Those who have followed the playoffs closely in the NBA and NHL have seen incredible underdog stories materialize with the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers, respectively, reaching the finals in their sports despite being the lowest seeds out of the Eastern Conference.
Although they don’t reside in the Sunshine State, the Smithfield High baseball team is the Cinderella story of Virginia High School League baseball for 2023 in many ways. The Packers defeated Mechanicsville 5-4 in the state quarterfinals Tuesday night to move one game closer to an improbable state championship. They play in the state semifinals at 1 p.m. Friday in Spotsylvania.
Coach Chris Nolan’s Packers entered the Region 4A Tournament as the No. 6 seed. Despite a hot 5-0 start to the season, the Packers hovered around the .500 mark for much of the season, dropping 10 of their final 15 regular season contests.
“The thing we never lost sight of was we had seven one-run losses,” Nolan said. “In those seven games, it could’ve just been one play or the other. We met with the team and told them the difference being 5-15 or 15-5 comes down to two plays a game. Five of those losses were to teams that played for region titles. Our players persevered, never gave up and they’ve been able to turn it around.”
Smithfield began its renaissance by doubling up third-seeded Grafton 4-2 in the regional quarterfinals before edging seventh-seeded Warwick 6-4 in the semifinals. Then there was another Bay Rivers District foe they’re quite familiar with in Jamestown, which they managed to avenge a pair of regular losses to by clipping the fifth-seeded Eagles 5-4 for the Region 4A crown.
“Our district, like a lot of them around here, is one of the toughest. The best thing about it is when you’re playing one-game runs every day of the week, you’re tournament tested. They’ve just been able to hang in there and do great things,” Nolan said.
A host of players have helped make this happen on a team that features just two seniors in pitchers James Fitchett and Nikolas Santomauro. Nolan indicated that the team ERA is under 2.00 during the playoff run as the pitching staff has “held it together,” along with the likes of junior Ty Hedgepeth and Maddax Brown, a junior who has “stepped up tremendously.” Brown hit home runs in the games against Grafton and Jamestown when the Packers trailed 2-0.
All-District shortstop Walter Bondurant qualifies as the group’s “sparkplug,” according to Nolan, with a batting average of .390 to go with the fact he’s a perfect 16 for 16 in stolen base opportunities. Both Bondurant and fellow sophomore center fielder Kelson Snowden are Class of 2025 prospects whom Nolan, who has experience coaching at the collegiate level, could see really flourishing in the next couple of years.
As fun as the ride has been for Smithfield, it’s not over yet and they want to extend it to the Spring Jubilee for Class 4, which takes place Friday and Saturday in Spotsylvania, where a state champion will be crowned. A win in Friday’s semifinals would put SHS in the state championship game at 11 a.m. Saturday.
For Smithfield, the pressure isn’t being felt whatsoever.
“Seeing how the players have adapted to the adversity, developed and continued to grow,” Nolan says, has been the most satisfying part of the journey.
“I want to congratulate the players through the ups and downs. They never wavered, kept fighting hard and coming back. We’re playing with house money. People don’t expect us to be here. It is absolutely an amazing feeling.”