SHENANDOAH — A vexed look came across Caleb Hilliard’s face as he glanced at a few of his teammates and shook his head.
The last time Page County stepped on the field was 11 days prior, but the feeling from that experience was still lingering in the minds of the Panthers on Monday afternoon, Hilliard said.
“Now we want it more,” Hilliard said. “It pissed everybody off and we want it a whole lot more now. Now we know we can do it. We can do anything we want.”
It didn’t take long for Page to get back on track as it scored six runs across the first two innings and never looked back en route to an 8-1 win over Central in the Region 2B baseball quarterfinals in Shenandoah.
With the win, the Panthers earned a semifinal home game on Wednesday against George Mason — a 3-1 winner over Wilson Memorial in another quarterfinal contest — at 6 p.m. at PCHS and also took one step toward erasing the memory of a 1-0 upset loss to Luray on May 16th in the first round of the Shenandoah District tournament.
While the Panthers likely preferred to keep playing and compete for a district tournament title after winning the regular-season crown, veteran coach Wayne Comer said the long break between the loss to the Bulldogs and the start of the regional tournament allowed Page to get healthy and to fine tune some things before regional play.
“It helped us a whole lot,” Comer said. “We practiced hard all week, had intrasquad [scrimmages] all week. We just came out ready to play today.”
In the loss to the Bulldogs, Panthers standout and Virginia Tech commit T.R. Williams was electric, striking out 18 and giving up just one hit, but a couple of late errors allowed Luray to steal the win in Shenandoah.
Against the Falcons (13-10), with Williams back on the bump, it was Page taking advantage of defensive miscues as it scored four runs off three hits and a pair of errors to jump out to a 4-0 lead after just one inning of play.
“I think the nerves got the best of us,” Central coach Sean Semones said. “We’ve been playing solid defense all year behind [Falcons starter Brandon Davis]. We’ve been on a roll late in the season behind him. He throws strikes and they put the ball into play against him, but we usually make those plays.”
The Panthers got two more runs in the second on a pair of RBI singles from Williams and Tristan Gordon while Davis was pulled after just 1.1 innings on the mound, giving up six runs on six hits and a walk while striking out one.
On the other side of the pitching matchup, Williams was dominant through three innings — keeping the Falcons hitless and issuing one walk while striking out eight — and was able to come out after just 38 pitches because of Page’s six-run lead.
“I just had to come out and throw strikes early and let the defense work behind me,” Williams said. “It feels good. We hit really good. The pitching was good. It was a solid performance.”
From there, the Panthers’ bullpen trio of Chase Combs, Hilliard and Taran Baker combined to pitch the next four frames, giving up one run on two hits and a pair of walks while striking out two.
Combs and Hilliard also added two more runs on the scoreboard with a pair of RBI doubles in the fourth to make it an 8-0 lead and put Page in cruise control.
“It was just bad baseball today,” Semones said. “That hasn’t happened to us in a long time. We usually show much better gloves than that. Giving them a [4-0 lead] like that to start off the game — that’s not a very good start to the ball game. It kind of demoralized us. We didn’t bounce back.”
Comer said he left Monday pleased with the overall play of his team, but was specifically happy with the pitching and the defense behind them.
“I thought we did a great job,” Comer said. “We’re still doing some stupid things that we have to get under control, but we gave up one run today. We’ll win a lot of ball games we keep doing that.”
Arguably the biggest victory for the Panthers (19-2) in the win was the fact that Williams only tossed 38 pitches, meaning he’ll be able to get the start Wednesday against George Mason.
“We was trying to get those runs early so he wouldn’t get too far into his pitch count,” Comer said. “He’ll be able to pitch again Wednesday now. Those other three guys came in and they’ve been big all year long for us. I wanted to get them into the game and prepared for regional play.”
Hilliard said having a guy like Williams — the 2018 Virginia High School League Class 2 Player of the Year — on the mound makes everyone else comfortable.
“That was good,” Hilliard said. “We can get down, but that makes it a lot easier on us. We settle in. It makes everything easier and seems like things just go our way.”
Much like Hilliard, Williams couldn’t deny how much the loss to Luray a week and a half earlier motivated the Panthers.
He said that maybe it was the type of wake-up call the defending Class 2 champions needed in order to make a run at winning back-to-back state title.
“It showed we needed to work on a lot of things,” Williams said. “We did for the past week and we came out today with a lot of fire.”
In other prep sports Monday:
Page County 8, Clarke County 1: Morgan Lucas was 2-for-2 with two RBIs and Maddie Gordon was 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI as Page County cranked out 12 hits in an 8-1 win over Clarke County in the Region 2B quarterfinals in Shenandoah.
Brooklynn Fridley and Caroline Zimmerman were both 2-for-3 with a double for the Panthers (19-4) while Taylor Umberger, Sabrina Foltz and Marissa Monger had one hit apiece.
Foltz also pitched five innings, giving up one run on three hits while striking out five. Gordon tossed two frames in relief and gave up just one hit and a walk while striking out four.
Page will host East Rockingham on Wednesday in the regional semifinals with a state berth on the line.