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Well, that figures.
The last thing, the very last thing, that involved athletes representing Galax High School in the 2011-12 school year was the acceptance of a state championship trophy.
The Maroon Tide won its third state title of the year – its first ever in baseball, 41 years removed from its most recent tournament appearance – by holding off a gritty Holston 9-8 in the Group A Division 1 championship game Saturday at Radford University.
It has seemingly become commonplace. This was the sixth state title in a team sport in the high school careers of pitcher-infielders Eddie Hanks and Jon Alouf, the third or the fourth for several other players. But unlike golf and basketball, and a near-miss in football, Galax wasn’t necessarily supposed to be playing for this one.
There was the 1-6 beginning to the year. Close losses or not, the lurching start could have been a season-killer. There were the injuries, enough of them that it wasn’t until the final game of the regular season that coach Ronald Mankins was able to trot out what he had planned on being his opening-day starting nine.
There was the necessity of winning three games, or at least two and a half of them, in three days. Electing to play its quarterfinal game not on its home field in the daytime but rather a night game at Calfee Park, the Tide scheduled itself into a fix when the final four innings of Tuesday’s quarter were rained out for two days, the only postponement in any high school sport in the state on Tuesday.
Having to play the last four-plus innings of that one on Thursday and then turn around the next day for the semifinals put the Tide (15-9) in a bind that only grew tighter when Friday’s semis dragged on for 11 innings.
In both the semifinals and the title game, a sophomore pulled through the most successful senior class in school history. A soph, and a senior with an old man’s body but a warrior’s heart.
Holston (17-12) overcame deficits of 6-0 and 8-4 on Saturday, tying the game at 8 in the top of the sixth with its second straight four-run outburst. There was no hint of panic.
“I heard several of those guys with all those [championship] rings say, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine,’ ” Mankins said. “I think the experience of winning championships and being in big games just helps you keep your cool in those situations.”
Galax merely went to work retaking the lead. Travis Garvey kicked up chalk with a lined double into the leftfield corner to lead off the home sixth, moving to third on Trevor Quesenberry’s sacrifice. Batting eighth in the lineup, designated hitter Bryant Cox lacked much of the big-game experience of his more-decorated elders, unless one counts a near-identical situation less than 24 hours earlier. It was the 10th-grader’s hard grounder through the hole to left that scored the winning run in the semifinals, and he capped a 3-for-3, three-RBI championship day Saturday with another sharp bouncer into left to score Garvey.
“I can’t describe the feeling. It’s amazing,” Cox said. “It was great to come out here and help the seniors get another win.”
Austin Pack had taken the mound in relief with a wobbly two-run lead in the sixth, giving back one run on a balk of all things – dropping the baseball while in contact with the pitching rubber – then seeing the game tied on Luke Wampler’s run-scoring ground out.
It would have been understandable if Pack had been all over the place Saturday, having worked the sixth through 11th innings and throwing 100 pitches the day before.
“I had no idea I was going to pitch,” he said. “Coach Mankins said, ‘Are you good?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ I want to pitch so I just went out there gave it my all.”
A kid who high-jumped 6 feet, 4 inches with one leg an inch shorter than the other, a state runner-up quarterback born with a club foot and who broke his femur playing football as an 11-year-old, a star point guard with two badly aching knees, Pack and his well-used arm got out of the sixth when Hanks, at shortstop, elevated to snare a Kenny Owens liner headed for the left-center gap.
Pack returned for the seventh and Travis Garvey immediately took away a single from Nathan Blevins with a diving stop of a grounder between first and second. After a walk to Devin Keith and a strikeout of Shane Milhorne, the game appeared over on Aaron Deel’s bouncer to third, but Alouf rolled his throwing hand awkwardly while fielding the ball and threw well wide of Garvey, the ball rolling into foul ground deep behind first.
Keith was held up at third by Holston coach Adam Moore, who had the top of the order coming up in Conrad Thacker.
“You’ve got the winning run on second and the tying run on third, and one swing of the bat can change it all,” Moore said. “What more can you ask for?”
But Thacker swung at two heaters in his eyes, including an adrenal fastball for strike three, and the legend of Austin Pack had added one more chapter.
“I asked him before I put him in, did he have anything left in the tanks, and he said, ‘Yeah coach, I’m good,’ ” Mankins said. “Anybody who knows Austin knows that he’ll give you everything he’s got and he’ll fight you to the death rather than lose. You just can’t say enough about that kid.”
Galax began building what would become a six-run lead by breaking a scoreless tie in the third, starting with Garvey’s RBI single. Cox, with two down, a full count and the runners in motion, sent a single into right for two more runs.
Dante Ravenell led off the fourth with a single and a stolen base, later scoring on a wild pitch. With two out and Alouf on base, Justin Ayers singled to center, taking second on the throw to third. A throwback to second sailed into rightfield and both runners scored for a 6-0 lead.
Holston had scored eight runs in the seventh inning – five with two outs – to erase a seven-run gap and end Galax’s season in ruinous fashion last year, and the same resilient Cavaliers used a two-run T.J. Widener single to highlight a four-run fifth. Galax tacked on two more runs in the bottom half on a Hanks sacrifice fly and a fielder’s choice that resulted in a late throw to second, allowing Pack to score for an 8-4 lead.
Holston pulled itself off the canvas one last time in the sixth, scoring two runs on a throwing error before knotting the score once Pack took the mound.
“We kind of got a little ahead of ourselves when it was 6-0 instead of putting it away, and they fought back,” Pack said. “We had to put it in gear and everybody stepped up. Just like yesterday. When we had to, everybody stepped up.”
Of course the dramatic irony of seeing Holston overcome two massive Galax leads, one year apart, wasn’t lost on Mankins.
“After that last game last year, one of our assistant coaches had the idea to finish every practice with something, some drill, so that we didn’t have another collapse,” he said. “We were going to finish every game, whether it was offense, defense, whatever, and to be able to play the team in the finals that he based that on is just unreal.”
One year later, Mankins and his Maroon Tide finally got that third out against Holston.
(Note: This story has a correction from the printed version pertaining to a play in the bottom of the fifth).