The Virginia High School League Spring Jubilee included seven semifinalists from the Bay Rivers District in Lynchburg and Radford last week. Though only the Warhill High softball team brought back a state championship trophy, the district rarely has had so many acquit themselves so well at such a high level in its 25-year history.
Among the non-champions, Bruton made the biggest splash with an historic run to the Group 2A boys soccer state final, while the other five district schools lost closely contested semifinals. The question now is, can they repeat their successes of 2016?
BRUTON BOYS SOCCER
Although the Panthers went just 8-7 during the regular season, their competitiveness against bigger schools in going 2-7 in the soccer-tough BRD — and a 6-0 non-district mark — had some speculating that they might make a lengthy postseason run against the (2A) schools their size. Bruton validated that hunch by winning the Conference 33 tournament, qualifying for the state tournament with two East Region tournament victories, then beating Virginia High 1-0 in the state semis.
The 6-1 loss to three-time defending champion George Mason in the state championship game ended a magical run led by all-state seniors Lanson Fontaine (29 goals), Sharif Donkor, Courtland Ford and Michael Wilson. The Panthers (14-10) lose four other starters to graduation, and another who is a foreign exchange student, so repeating this year's exploits will be a challenge.
But, among the several starters expected to return, Chuckie Tenbusch (19 assists) is a first-team all-state pick and Donevan Adkins scored the goal in the state final. Keep in mind, the Panthers lost eight starters off of the 2015 regional semifinalists and rebounded to make this year's state final.
"We talked in a group text about how special it was to be the first Bruton soccer team ever to make a state tournament, because we were so close as a family," Bruton coach Luke Taylor said. "A repeat is absolutely possible, but we're going to have to rely on young guys stepping up."
Like Bruton, the Islanders had an average (12-8) regular season in a deep district, but displayed in the postseason the value of squeezing the most out of multiple pitchers, preventing the opposition from getting big innings and playing air-tight defense. The result was five one-run victories in six wins en route to the Conference 25 and 3A East Region titles.
The Islanders deviated from the formula just once in the postseason, giving up five runs in the fifth inning of a 6-3 loss to eventual champion Rustburg in the 3A state semis. But, with shortstop Sean Conners, second baseman Kyle Jackson and center fielder Austin Gault likely returning, the Islanders will be tough up the middle.
Top starting pitcher Cole Jackson also is slated to return and, if he gets support from youngsters like Colten Hicks and Hunter Schmidt — who cut their teeth in the mound as freshmen — the Islanders could make another run next year. It won't hurt that Gault (.378 batting average, 23 RBI), Cole Jackson (.364 avg., 18 RBI) and Conners (.355 avg., 11 RBI) return with three of the Islanders' best bats.
The best season in Jamestown baseball history ended at 22-3 with a 5-4 loss to Liberty Christian Academy on a walk-off hit in the bottom of the seventh inning of the 4A state semis. It marked the final game for three Division I recruits — left-handed ace Kent Klyman (N.C. State), outfielder Evan Lowery (Navy) and outfielder Chris Jones (Liberty) — as well as catcher Roger Romero, outfielders Garrick Colorado and Cameron Mays, and second baseman Noah Scruggs.
"I can't say enough about that group," Eagles coach John Cole said of his seniors. "They gave a great effort, buying in and leading us to the best record in school history."
The cupboard shouldn't be bare in 2017, with the likely return of pitcher Ryan Devine (9-1) and first baseman Michael Schmidt (.419 batting average, 21 RBI). The key to contending for another state tournament berth will be the development of underclassmen, especially in the outfield.
TABB GIRLS SOCCER
The Tigers (18-3) were more competitive than many expected in a 1-0 loss to a Blacksburg team that entered the 3A state semifinal unbeaten in 63 games. In fact, the Tigers came close to tying the game twice in the closing minutes with dangerous free kicks on goal.
The Tigers lose five starters, most notably Leah Tyson (40 goals) and defensive ace Lakaiah Robinson — virtual locks to make the all-state team — and Vita Sconyers, whose sudden-death overtime goal against Brentsville District sent the Tigers into the state tournament. But a strong nucleus returns — including Abby Jurewicz, Schuyler Jurewicz, Brennan Rausch, Abby Heckler, Gabby Solaroli and Taylor Carr — so a repeat trip to the state tournament is not unrealistic.
"I feel more comfortable with what we have returning on defense," Tigers coach Kelle Shiflett said. "Without Leah anchoring the offense, I think you'll see more plays have to develop for us to score."
TABB BOYS SOCCER
Tabb's boys soccer finish was similar to the girls team. The Tigers lost an exciting 2-1 state semifinal to heavily favored perennial power Blacksburg in the final game for a number of senior stars.
All of the important graduation losses come in the midfield, where Christopher Newport University-bound Derek Cook (eight goals), Reese Wolf, Andrew Jurewicz and Matt Montgomery led the way. But like the Tabb girls, the Tigers (10-7-2) return a bunch of capable talent in Zach Brown, Ben Barton, Preston Klekar, Alex Kleb, Allen Blair, Nathan Everard, Noah Schorb and Andrew Lenfant, who scored in the state semifinal.
"If we can develop a midfield, we can go just as far," Tigers coach Scott Kuhnle said.
LAFAYETTE BOYS SOCCER
The 2016 BRD state semifinalist facing perhaps the biggest challenge of a postseason repeat next year is probably Lafayette's boys soccer team. The trio of Reeves Trott (22 goals, 15 assists), Jason Eckenrod (23 goals, 12 assists) and Matt Beatty has been crucial in leading the Rams to three state tournament appearances in four seasons.
They all graduate, along with (goalie) David Domalski, Steven Wigley, Thomas Pogue and Tobi Yanez. Paul Cordle, Gavin Arsenault, John Adkins and Ish Roy should lead a returning cast that is capable, but less talented than the last four Lafayette teams.
"I knew when Reeves, Matt and Jason came in they were going to be special," Rams coach Brian Sorrell said. "They kids coming in have learned that we're expected to go to states every year, and if they buy into our system, we should be fine."
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.