PULASKI — It took less than 30 seconds for Page County coach Wayne Comer to deliver his message and send the players to the dugout to collect their bags and head off the field.
While some players held their heads in disappointment on the dugout bench, others stood dejected along the third-base line with a blank stare.
“They were pretty good, but I believe I didn’t have my best stuff today,” Panthers sophomore left-hander T.R. Williams said.
Lebanon ace Matthew Buchanan, who is also a sophomore lefty, pitched a complete game, giving up five hits while striking out eight and the Pioneers bats continued their stellar postseason run as they cruised past Page 11-1 in the Virginia High School League Class 2 baseball semifinals on Thursday at Calfee Park in Pulaski.
With the win, Lebanon will face Chatham, a 11-7 winner over Stuarts Draft in the other semifinal Thursday, in the VHSL Class 2 championship game today at noon back in Pulaski. The Panthers — the defending state champions — finished their season with a 22-4 overall mark.
“I just told them that it was a good year,” Comer said. “We’ll come back next year and give it another good shot. We’ll be all right next year.”
Coming into the season, Page had high hopes for this year, but every time the Panthers had any type of momentum going, they were hit with a sudden setback.
Page’s first loss came to Riverheads and it snapped a 42-game winning streak. The second was a Shenandoah District first-round upset to eight-seeded Luray and the third was a 9-4 shocker at the hands of Stuarts Draft in the Region 2B championship game.
Despite the adversity, Page hadn’t seen a lineup like Lebanon’s, and it showed as the Pioneers pounded out 14 hits on the day.
“The first six hitters are all pretty good hitters,” Comer said. “We didn’t play very well today in the field. I thought the umpire squeezed us up a little bit, but the best team won today.”
There were four regular starters for the Panthers absent from the lineup Thursday —Trevor Williams, Freddy Stidham, Caleb Hilliard and Casey Meadows —and Comer declined to comment on the reason why after the game.
Their absence was not only noticeable at the plate, where Page had just five hits for the day, but also showed up defensively with a couple of miscues costing the Panthers runs at various points throughout the game.
“They had a good pitcher and it made it tougher trying to hit it,” Page shortstop Noah Hammer said. “Defensively, we just couldn’t make all the plays and our hitting wasn’t good. It was a perfect storm.”
Page actually got on the board first when Chase Combs connected on a bloop single down the right-field line to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead in the second, but that was the only Page run that would cross the plate.
The Pioneers responded with an RBI single from Casey White in the bottom of that inning and then got two more in the third off an RBI single from Anthony Houchins and a wild pitch that allowed Houchins to later come home and put Lebanon up 3-1.
That was just enough of a cushion for Buchanan, a University of Virginia commit, to work with as he cruised from there and never put the Pioneers back in danger again.
“Matt is Matt,” Lebanon coach Doc Adams said. “He comes in every day and works like a dog. When we get him some runs early, it helps him relax a little bit better. When he’s on, he’s on and today, he was on a little bit.”
The game remained within reach for Page until the fifth and sixth innings.
A passed ball and an RBI single from Hunter Hertig extend the Pioneers’ lead to 5-1 in the fifth and then, in the sixth, Lebanon blew things wide open.
Highlighted by a three-run inside-the-park homer from Houchins, Lebanon put up six runs on six hits to open an 11-1 lead and put a dagger in the Panthers’ chances.
“We put a lot of time into this hitting stuff,” Adams said. “We got a new batting cage this year and we stay in it a lot, do a lot of hitting. I’ve got some good baseball players who like to play baseball. They come to practice, they come to hit. They can hit it when they get their heads up.”
Williams, a Virginia Tech commit, finished with 4.2 innings tossed, giving up five runs on eight hits and four walks while striking out six.
While it wasn’t the sophomore’s best day, he said it’s hard not to say Page still had a good season, considering they were Shenandoah District regular-season champions and Region 2B runner-up.
“The season was great,” T.R. Williams said. “We did reach our accomplishment of getting back to states, but we didn’t win it so I don’t know.”
Buchanan, meanwhile, will now move to center field today when Lebanon plays in the state championship game.
If the Pioneers (24-2) can pull off a win, it will be their first state championship in program history.
“Let’s put it this way: We don’t want to just be here,” Adams said. “It’s been eluding us for a long, long time. We’re not satisfied being here. We want to finish the job this time.”
Hammer, Meadows, Hilliard and Matt Martin are the four seniors departing the Page program and despite leaving without a second straight title, Hammer said they leave proud of the one they were able to bring home in 2018.
“It was great,” Hammer said. “I’m happy with what we did this year. We didn’t win, but it was still four great years.”
As for the returners, the loss simply provided fuel for next season, Williams said once his teammates had departed the dugout and headed toward the bleachers.
“It gives me a big hunger,” Williams said. “I’m motivated.”