Players in both dugouts leaned forward, clenching the rail for dear life. With two outs gone in the bottom of the seventh, giddy Chantilly supporters behind the fence braced themselves for celebration. Leading Oakton 4-3 Monday night, it seemed the underdog Chargers’ improbable run through the Concorde District tournament was about to be capped by a championship.
But the man at the plate had other ideas.
“All I knew was that I had to hit the ball hard somewhere and I knew it would get through,” said Kyle Burger, Oakton’s last batter standing between the ball and elimination. “I’d been swinging good all night. I just had to hit it hard on the line, and I knew someone would score.”
Burger hit it hard all right, but the ball didn’t just balloon into the sky as it had so many other times for the Cougars on this night. Oakton’s senior catcher picked precisely the right moment to catch it flush, belting reliever Austin Margarida’s pitch deep to center to send his teammates on first and second scurrying toward home.
As the line drive bounced to the wall, it was clear Keith Knicely was going to score from second base. The only question fell on the guy trailing him, Joey Bartosic: could he beat the throw at home plate to provide the winning run?
“The whole time I was just saying, ‘Please, just get one in the gap,’” Oakton coach Justin Janis said. “I knew we had Joe Bartosic on first, who can run. It didn’t even have to get to the wall before I had a feeling he was going to score. It was just amazing. It just kind of went to that spot, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, we have a chance.’”
The climactic question was answered faster than the freewheeling gallop that saw Bartosic barrel into home plate with time to spare. Yet Bartosic’s mad dash couldn’t compare to the speed of the subsequent stampede coming at him, as teammates made a beeline from the dugout to revel in a 5-4 victory that provided their second district crown in the last three years.
It was an impressive win against a gutsy Chantilly team playing with a chip on its shoulder. Thanks to an uninspiring 3-7 district record, the Chargers (11-12, 3-7 Concorde) weren’t expected to go far as the No. 5 seed in a six-team field. But two wins in a one-week span against top-seeded Centreville had the Chargers on a roll, and a seventh inning go-ahead run on their home field in the district championship seemed like the stuff of destiny.
With his team trailing 3-2 in the top of the seventh, Chantilly junior Mike Sciorra took advantage of an error to provide the tying run from second base. Junior Eason Recto, in the midst of going for a complete game on the mound, then drove one deep to center to allow senior third baseman Sonny Romine to race in for the go-ahead run.
“When I was standing in the field after they scored the go-ahead run, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were going to win this game,” said Bartosic, who is hitting about .400 this season. “If we were going to keep it within one [run], I knew our guys would clutch up and get the win.”
Oakton’s response in the ensuing frame marked its second comeback of the evening. The Cougars (17-4, 7-3 Concorde), seeded second in the tournament, got into a 2-0 hole early in the game but climbed out of it with three straight hits in the bottom of the fourth.
The resilience on display wasn’t a flash in the pan to anyone paying attention to Oakton this season. Janis believes his players’ mental resolve has come a long way since the season’s outset.
“That’s something we’ve talked a lot about this year,” said Janis, a ’97 Oakton grad in his fifth season at the helm. “We even said it earlier in the year, that we might not be able to respond if we’d have had one of those plays in the seventh not go our way. That’s where earlier in the year it might have led to two or three more runs.”
Oakton wasn’t the only team on the diamond displaying renewed postseason toughness. Chantilly had suffered five straight defeats going into its May 10 meeting with Centreville, a red-hot squad riding 11 consecutive wins. The Chargers emerged with a decisive 5-1 win before taking down Westfield, another team they had lost to earlier in the season, four days later in the first round of the district tournament. Centreville tried to get revenge in the second round, but Chantilly stood up again, this time using a shutout by sophomore pitcher Matt Hogle to beat the Wildcats 5-0.
The Chargers saw their fourth win in a row slip through their fingers, even after a valiant performance by Recto, who stuck it out on the mound before cramps forced him to move to first base in the final inning.
“To be right there and to have that happen, it’s really tough,” Chantilly coach Kevin Ford said. “But they’ll be alright. They’ll come back. This team is pretty resilient. A lot of the success we’ve seen at the end of the season here has been because we’ve become a little more of a team. Guys are trusting their teammates and coming together. So I expect that to continue. It’s what got us here.”
The Chargers can’t hang their heads much longer, not with a road game against defending state champion Lake Braddock looming in the first round of regionals Friday. Oakton will return home Friday to face fourth-seeded T.C. Williams, a team boasting one of the area’s top pitchers in George Mason-signee Alec Grosser.
If they stick together the way they did on Monday, the Cougars believe they can provide more surprises in the coming weeks.
“They’re a tight group, and they’re willing to fight for each other,” Janis said. “They won’t quit on each other; they’ll push each other. They’re just a real tight team, and I think they’re showing some mental toughness now too.”