At Liberty High School, where the softball field is soaked from three straight days of rain, softball coach Mike Thompson held a practice Monday that consisted of hitting in the batting cage and fielding grounders in the school’s gym.
Then it was time for team bonding and a break from the headaches of a state tournament that just won’t end. He took the team to Lynchburg to play miniature golf and eat pizza.
If that seems abnormal for this time of year, it’s because nothing is normal about the 2019 Virginia High School League playoffs. They’ve been rescheduled, pushed into different time slots and, in some cases, moved to alternate venues as rain and storms swamp various parts of the state.
The three area teams still left in the hunt — Liberty softball and Brookville and Liberty Christian baseball — are scheduled to play in Thursday’s state semifinals and, if they win, in Friday’s finals.
Meanwhile they are in waiting mode, with players postponing vacations or putting on hold plans to join their summer leagues.
“The anticipation of what we’re going to look like when we get back on the field,” is how Liberty High softball coach Mike Thompson described the layoff. “We’ll be fine, we’ll be excited, and I don’t think we’ll have too much rust, but this time of year, all it takes is one bad inning.”
Liberty (20-6) plays Warren County in one of Thursday’s Class 3 semifinals, set for 9 a.m. at Moyer Complex in Salem. The Minettes are making their second straight state semifinal appearance and trying to win their first softball championship in school history.
The team’s pitcher, left-handed junior Millie Thompson, feels like she’s at the top of her game right now, throwing better than she did in the regular season. Like her teammates, she’s ready to play.
“You can be as ready as you can be,” she said, “but it’s still stressful. Waiting an extra week is definitely tough.”
At Liberty Christian, where the Bulldogs are trying to win their second Class 4 baseball championship in three years, standout pitcher Christian Gordon is feeling confident, and with good reason.
His Bulldogs, backed by blazing bats and dominant pitching, are 25-1 entering Thursday’s semifinal matchup with Lafayette, scheduled for noon at Kiwanis Field in Salem. The VHSL changed the time Monday after rescheduling that game for 3 p.m. last week. The venue also has changed from Salem Memorial Ballpark.
The time off has helped players stay fresh, Gordon said, and hasn’t deluded his opinion that LCA is “playing its best baseball right now.”
“I’ve got a good feeling about it,” said Gordon, who was a sophomore when LCA won its first VHSL title in 2017. “I think we’ be able to win another state championship.”
For Gordon, the lights-out southpaw selected in the 38th round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft last week by the Pittsburgh Pirates (the same team for which his coach, Randy Tomlin, pitched in the 1990s), this playoff run feels familiar. His team surged in 2017, knocking off opponents left and right.
“It’s definitely got that same vibe,” he said.
Gordon, who plans to wait until after the state tournament to made a decision about whether to pursue a professional career or play college ball Liberty University, was angry when he first heard about the postponements last week. Then the senior changed his thinking.
Playing on the travel circuit, where teams often wrap one tournament only to start another right away, gave him a different perspective on the layoff. So he’s treating last week’s quarterfinal round like it’s a completely different tourney than the semifinal and final rounds.
“Everybody on the team definitely wants to get those two games out of the way, in a good way, of course,” he said. “It’s calmness with a sense of urgency. We want it bad, especially after last year.”
The Bulldogs were upset in the 2018 Region 4D quarterfinals, a season in which it looked like no one would touch them.
“We wanted to reestablish dominance this year, which I think we’ve done,” Gordon said.
At Brookville, where the baseball club will battle Tabb High in the Class 3 semifinals Thursday, coach Chris Glaize hasn’t experienced a postseason like this one.
On Monday, the VHSL announced Brookville would play Thursday at 3 p.m., a departure from the original 9 a.m. start time.
“They’re itching to get back out there,” Glaize said of his players.
The extra rest means all three Brookville starters — Brennan Abbott, Brock Duff and Jed Howard — will be available to pitch Thursday. That gives the Bees, who have relied on that trio for strong performances, a bonus against the Tabb. The Yorktown-based Tigers (20-3) are dangerous. They swept through play in the Bay Rivers District and even downed Lafayette (LCA’s semifinal opponents) twice this season.
Some players will be faced a with long, challenging day Thursday. Liberty, for instance, will have to leave Bedford early for its 9 a.m. game; but some players, Mike Thompson explained, live 30 to 40 minutes from the school, and will have to wake up long before dawn to drive to the school and leave with the team.
Still, Millie Thompson expects her teammates will bring along plenty of energy.
“I’ve got full confidence in every single one of them,” she said.
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.