SALEM — Austin Roach kept his eye locked on the ground ball that trickled to first baseman Jacob Williams. Williams secured the ball in his glove, made four quick steps and stepped on the first-base bag.
Roach leapt into the air as Williams hugged catcher Wesley Clarke. In a matter of seconds, every other Liberty Christian baseball player reached the trio and a massive dogpile commenced near the first-base line.
At the bottom of the pile was Roach, who moments earlier fashioned a five-hit complete game that lifted the Bulldogs to an 8-5 victory and the Group 4A state championship over Hanover on a sun-splashed Saturday at Salem Memorial Ballpark.
For Roach, it was pure bliss at the bottom of the celebratory pile.
“There’s no words for it,” Roach said. “It was the best day of my life. It was awesome.”
Roach, a senior making his final high school start, took advantage of LCA’s six-run second inning to weather through Hanover’s best offensive blows and send the Bulldogs (23-2) to their third state championship in the past four seasons.
It was LCA’s first baseball state title in the Virginia High School League after winning back-to-back titles in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association in 2014 and 2015.
“It’s awesome. We made history, a private school being in the VHSL and winning it,” Roach said.
LCA advanced to last season’s state title game and lost a thriller to Hanover, 13-12.
“We knew they were going to play a good game with us,” Hanover’s Nick Zona said. “We knew they were going to be ready and they wanted revenge from last year’s state title. … We knew they were going to be ready the whole way around. It didn’t come out in our favor.”
The Bulldogs led 8-1 after the second inning, but the defending state champion Hawks (23-3) chipped away at the deficit. Hanover scored two in the fourth on Camden Grimes’ homer over the left-field wall and added a run in the fifth on Brian Sisson’s RBI groundout to pull within 8-4.
Roach escaped the fifth inning with back-to-back strikeouts and then threw a perfect sixth.
The Hawks tacked on a run in the seventh, but Grimes’ check swing on the first pitch of his at-bat trickled down the first-base line. Williams snagged it after it went by the bag in fair territory and stepped on the base to set off the celebration.
“I just wanted to go immediately celebrate with my teammates,” Clarke said. “We got what we deserved. We worked hard for that since before the preseason.”
Roach threw 104 pitches in the complete-game outing. The right-hander allowed five hits, three walks and struck out four. He relied heavily on his fastball and slider in the final two innings.
“His slider, it came in looking like a fastball and then would just drop off,” Clarke said. “If he could place that right on the outside corner, it’s effective. It’s a hard pitch to hit. It’s a great pitch.”
Clarke went 2 for 3 with a two-run single in the Bulldogs’ six-run second inning. Kyle Horton went 2 for 3 with a two-run single in the second.
Noah Robbins went 2 for 3 and Jacob Williams had a two-run single in LCA’s second inning.
Grimes went 2 for 4 and Zona added two hits for Hanover.
Horton’s single in the second chased Hanover starter Antonio Baldcucci. The southpaw allowed eight earned runs on seven hits and two walks in 1 1/3 innings. He struck out two and threw 49 pitches.
“We had seen that lefty previously in the season,” Clarke said. “We knew what he had, we knew his tendencies and we were just aggressive and executed.”
Zona, however, was able to keep the Bulldogs off the scoreboard in relief. He scattered four hits and walked three in 4 2/3 innings.
However, the early seven-run lead was enough for Roach and the Bulldogs to claim the state championship after coming so close last season.
“He just kept coming back, he kept making his pitches and he kept pounding the zone,” Clarke said of Roach. “It was his game.”