Future Hokies exhale after state softball playoff trilogy

.@VT_Softball coach Scot Thomas never seen anything like 18-inning duel between future #Hokies Keely Rochard,

Keely Rochard is spending this week at home, preparing for her Saturday graduation from Warhill High School. No classes, no exams, no pressure.

Pomp and Circumstance in her rear-view mirror, Jordan Dail is lounging in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with some of her fellow Brookville High graduates. Sun, fun, reflection.

If ever athletes deserved some indulgences, it's these two close friends, frequent teammates and occasional rivals.

Last Saturday, for the third consecutive season, Warhill and Brookville collided in the state Group 3A softball tournament. And for the third straight year, Rochard and Dail, travel ball teammates with the Williamsburg Starz and future Virginia Tech Hokies, graced the pitching circle.

"It was just fun to watch," Tech coach Scot Thomas said of Saturday's championship contest.

Easy for him to say. He was neutral. He wasn't enduring the every-pitch anxiety that strikes when two quality teams are so closely matched.

How closely? Both were unbeaten. Each boasted a potent lineup, sound defense and dominant ace.

"It was staggering," said Warhill coach Tom Bunn, who also leads the Starz. "Both teams were awesome."

They were awesome for 18 innings, the first 17 scoreless. For more than four hours. In 90-degree heat. With the highest of stakes.

Eighteen innings. That's two-and-a-half regulation games. Between the last two state champions.

Imagine the Warriors and Cavs playing 14 overtimes in Game 7 of this year's NBA Finals. There's your basketball equivalent of this softball saga.

"That's who we wanted to play," Bunn said. "They knocked Warhill out two years ago, we beat them last year in the state championship, and both teams go undefeated this season. It played out exactly as it was supposed to play out.

"I don't think you're going to get a game like that in any sport in a state championship, maybe ever. Certainly not for a long, long time, where it's the trilogy of them meeting in the state tournament. If you sent that to Hollywood, they wouldn't believe it. …

"I don't feel 100 percent yet. It was pretty exhausting, and I can't imagine the players."

Especially Rochard and Dail. Each went the distance, Rochard throwing 282 pitches, Dail 262.

Now softball's underhand delivery doesn't strain the elbow and shoulder like baseball's overhand motion. Still, there is a toll — on the legs that generate power and the mind that must focus.

"During the game, I don't get tired," Rochard said. "Nor do I get sore. But usually the next morning when I wake up I'm like, 'Ugh, I can't get out of bed.'"

Rochard and Dail face no such endurance tests when competing for the Starz. Rochard, a right-hander, usually starts and throws 3-4 innings. Dail, a left-hander, then closes, forcing opponents to adjust mid-game.

The tactic is so effective, the friends so unselfish, that they hope Thomas employs a similar strategy during their college careers.

"We just find it easier that way," Dail said. "It's definitely a lot of fun."

Virginia Tech was a fitting destination for Dail and Rochard. They met in Blacksburg on an unofficial recruiting visit the summer after their freshman year, and both soon committed to the Hokies.

Dail, who had just pitched Brookville to the first of two consecutive state championships, then joined Rochard on the Starz.

"We immediately hit it off," Rochard said.

"It was really cool to meet somebody who was like me," Dail said.

Their bond didn't waver when Brookville shelled Warhill 10-3 in the 2015 state semifinals at Liberty University, five miles from Brookville's home field. Or when the Lions defeated the Bees 2-0 last year to win their first state title, also at Liberty.

Rochard and Dail still connected via text, Twitter and Facebook. They still partnered with the Starz.

"It's just a game," Rochard said matter-of-factly.

Saturday was far more, the stress and scoreless innings mounting to levels that amazed even a veteran such as Thomas.

Virginia Tech's coach since the program's 1996 inception, he has witnessed thousands of college, high school and club games. He coached a national Player of the Year in pitcher Angela Tincher, now a Hokies assistant.

"I've never seen anything like that," said Thomas, whose entire six-player recruiting class comes from the Starz.

Watching Dail and Rochard reminded Thomas of Tincher's senior season, 2008, when she pitched against Arizona's Taryne Mowatt, MVP of the previous year's Women's College World Series. Tincher and Mowatt combined to throw 371 pitches and strike out 41 in the Wildcats' 4-3 victory.

But that contest was 12 innings and included seven runs. Warhill and Brookville might not have scored seven runs in a week the way Rochard and Dail were throwing.

"I was stupid enough to think we had a game plan to squeeze some runs in," Bunn said. "It was either a really bad plan or really bad execution."

Dail and Rochard weren't perfect. They walked 12 and allowed 18 hits. But when it mattered most, they summoned the poise and talent necessary to escape.

Alexis Ferguson, Brookville's No. 8 hitter, almost ended it in the bottom of the 10th. Her leadoff double to dead center, 220 feet from home plate, would have been a home run anywhere else at Moyer Complex in Salem.

And Dail, who hit a three-run homer in the semifinals against York, laced a two-out liner to left-center in the 12th with runners on first and third. But Warhill centerfielder Olivia Schulz was shaded to left and ran it down.

"Smart coaching, smart defense," Dail said.

Pitching changes were out of the question.

Having missed several games early in the season with a leg injury, Dail was well-rested. Rochard was working on her 13th consecutive playoff shutout.

Dail: "At that point, we were just kind of thinking we just need to keep pushing and keep fighting. We can sleep or rest later. Especially with all the adrenaline running, I wasn't really tired, and if I was, I didn't feel it at all."

Rochard: "It was … surreal. It was almost like we were going through the motions as the innings went on. It became repetitive. … I felt like the game would never end, that we were just going to keep playing and keep playing."

Bunn: "We don't have a Plan B. Plan B is the bus. She's pitched every inning of every game the last two years. I think if I had asked, she would have looked at me cross-eyed. If I'd done it, she probably would have punched me."

Bunn's Lions had won 45 straight games since a 2016 setback to Grafton. But Dail was getting stronger as the game progressed, and the bottom of Warhill's lineup was overmatched.

For the first time all season, Bunn's confidence sagged.

"I shouldn't even say this," he said. "I was almost resigned to the fact that it was going to be us. We had long stretches at the end of regulation and into extra innings where we weren't even coming close, and they were. And I'm like, 'Man, we're just delaying the inevitable here. Our at-bats are getting worse, theirs are getting better.'"

Finally, a glimmer of hope for the defending champs. Kieran McClure drew a leadoff walk in the top of the 18th.

That's it, Thomas thought. A leadoff walk is the Cardinal sin of pitching, and this was the first one all day.

Sure enough, Lindsey Davis sacrificed McClure to second and, with two out, Jasmine Ortiz drove her home with a bloop single to right.

But true epics don't end quietly, and with one out in the bottom of the 18th, consecutive singles by Kylie Stark and Skyler Winfield put runners on first and third. Another tie? More softball?

"That," Bunn said, "would have been unbearable."

Rochard spared her coach, recording the final two outs with a strikeout and comebacker. The 1-0 final left players and fans on both sides spent and, in many cases, in tears.

"It was just great to be a part of," the gracious Brookville coach, Gary Ferguson, told our Kellen Holtzman.

"You can't say one was better than the other Saturday," Bunn said of Rochard and Dail. "They were both phenomenal. As clichéd as it is, it was a shame that somebody had to lose that game."

Indeed, days later winners didn't boast and losers didn't lament. Rather, everyone appreciated the privilege of competing in or watching the longest state championship game in Virginia High School League history.

"It had everything," Bunn said.

Bunn has coached Warhill for only two seasons — not a bad start, eh? — but after more than a decade on the elite travel circuit, he knows Division I potential. He knows that college pitchers need not only power but also movement and control.

He expects Rochard and Dail to thrive at Virginia Tech. Naturally, so does Thomas.

Ever-cognizant of the difficult transition from high school to college sports, he envisions them, in concert with his veterans, returning the Hokies to the national prominence they earned when Tincher played.

Rochard and Dail will arrive at Tech with two state championships each. And given the scope and arcs of their high school careers, a 2-all deadlock in titles feels right.

"Whoever won, I was just happy we're going to be on the same (college) team," Rochard said, "because obviously we're pretty hard to get a run off of."

"I'd like to have four rings," Dail said, "but I'm glad she's the one with the other two."

Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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