In the middle of the Class 4 Northwestern District season, it appeared James Wood might need to win the district tournament to advance to the Region 4C tournament.
The Colonels had dropped three straight and four of five, including district losses to rival Sherando (3-1) and to Liberty (6-3).
Yet somehow, the Colonels were able to turn things around. They ripped off seven straight wins to close out the regular season. The final one, an 8-2 defeat of Sherando, gave James Wood the district title.
Thanks to that rebound, James Wood’s Todd Baker is The Winchester Star’s Softball Coach of the Year. Baker wins the honor for the third time in the last four seasons after leading the Colonels to a 16-6 record and a regional berth.
The Colonels lost 8-0 against Fauquier in the district tournament final and advanced to regional semifinal play before falling 8-3 to Dulles District champion Riverside.
Q: What were your expectations for the season and were they met?
Baker: I think we were who we were. I knew going in we were going to pitch well and I thought that we would play good defense. I think the defense played a little better than my expectations. We made some outstanding plays early in the season because we weren’t scoring runs. The one thing that did shock me is that we did not hit at all at the beginning of the season. ... You just had that feeling that if we don’t start hitting, we’re not going to advance. We’re not going to get there. At one point, we were fourth in the district and it was because we weren’t hitting. We practiced very hard. We pretty much did away with defensive practice and we didn’t do anything but hit — every day. I think some kids, their mechanics got better and we started having better approaches at the plate. We starting being maybe a little more first-pitch aggressive and started barrelling stuff up. We took off. Those last seven district games, we weren’t just winning by a little. We were putting up big-time runs.
Q: Was there a particular game or moment that defined the season?
Baker: It’s always easy to talk about the crosstown rival Sherando. That last game to wrap up the district title and to give us an automatic bid to regionals, that has to be the game that stands out in my mind and probably most of the team’s mind. The first inning, [Rebecca] Boone hitting a grand slam and the very next batter Hannah Davis comes up and hits a solo shot and you’re up 5-0. I’m standing on third base and I know what I’ve got in [pitcher] Ivy [Rosenberry] and I’m like, ‘I feel pretty good about my chances right now walking across this field and handing her the ball.’ But, you never know. With Sherando you have to keep battling. They had some baserunners and had some opportunities, but Ivy was able to get out of a couple of jams. Beating Fauquier down there, it’s always hard to do that and we’ve done it the last two years. That is a tough spot to play. I was pretty proud of that win, too.
Q: Were there any players who surprised you this season?
Baker: I was not really surprised because you see them work all year and you kind of expect it, but Jenna Burkhamer came in and batted .429. In practice, she just started hitting bombs and showed a lot of power and you knew it was coming. Afton Sykes coming back after taking a year off was huge for us. She’s a good leader and a big, strong left-handed stick in the lineup. There were no major surprises. I kind of expected what I had. I kind of felt when I walked in that we may struggle offensively, but we were going to hold some teams down. I was hoping the offense would come around and it did. ... Rebecca Boone behind the plate this year, when you talk about players who exceeded my expectations, I didn’t really expect her to be as good as she was. She was really good back there. She managed the game well and showed a mental toughness that I haven’t really seen in many kids here. That even cost her some of her offensive numbers early. She focused so much on controlling Ivy’s pitches and managing the game back there. ... Boone at the end was not only a great catcher but was one of our hottest hitters when we needed it the most.
Q: What was the season’s biggest disappointment?
Baker: It was a disappointing loss to Fauquier [in the district tournament final]. I and my coaching staff pride ourselves on being mentally right. I think I made a mistake and downplayed that game a little bit because we had already made it to regionals and I wanted my team to relax a little bit and catch a breath. Well, if you try to catch your breath against a team like Fauquier and what happened is going to happen. We weren’t mentally into the game. Physically, we were capable of winning any game this year. That was a game I wish we could get back. Taking it from there, we went down to Riverside and we were mentally right but we made physical errors that we hadn’t made all year. I think the lights might have been a little bright down there, maybe a little bit of an intimidation factor. We have a lot of players that don’t play high-level travel and I don’t think they’ve seen that type of atmosphere, but it’s going to be huge going forward with these players. They’ve seen it. They know what to expect and I look forward to next year.
Q: You graduate four seniors, what are your expectations for next season?
Baker: It’s always hard to guess, but I know we have some talented kids coming in and we have a pretty good returning group. My expectation is always to win the last game of the year. I don’t know why I would be here if I didn’t want to win a state championship. Now am I going to win a state championship? I haven’t done it yet. Haven’t even made it to state. You always want to work towards that. My expectations are we’ll work hard, prepare for every team the best we can and we will try to go out and win every game that we play. We’ll let the chips fall where we may. ... When I first got the job here, I knew that to build a program you have to have really good people around you. I have two of the best [assistant coaches] in Patrick Gibson and Steve Hicks. Without them, the program, the wins, we’re not near as strong as we have been. I wanted to thank those guys, again. We communicate 12 months out of the year and we’re always talking about how to make the team better. I’m so thankful to have those guys around me.