Hurler, homers boost NR to regional berth

Published 10:22 pm Thursday, May 26, 2011

All of the Warriors greet Josh Howard at the plate for his solo home run in the third inning of Wednesday night’s 6-3 Nansemond River win over Western Branch in the semifinals of the Southeastern District Tournament at Nansemond River. The Warriors (17-6) clinched an Eastern Region Tournament berth with the victory along with moving into Thursday evening’s district championship game.

By hurting Western Branch with the long ball for the second time this season, Nansemond River earned its first Eastern Region baseball tournament spot since 2005 and the opportunity to win the Southeastern District championship with a 6-3 win over the Bruins Wednesday night in the district semis.

Playing on Nansemond River’s home field, the Bruins were the home team as the No. 2 seed against the No. 3 Warriors (17-6).

Nansemond River sophomore Zach Rice started on the mound and held Western Branch to four hits and two runs in 5.0 innings as the Warriors went on to beat the Bruins 6-3 in the Southeastern District Tournament semifinals Wednesday night at Nansemond River. Rice improved to 5-0 on the season.

Along with everything else riding on the game, it was the rubber match for the season between the two squads. The Warriors won 10-8 against Western Branch at NR in March, with three Warrior homers on the day. The Bruins beat NR 2-1 in Chesapeake in late April.

Email newsletter signup

The Warriors turned to sophomore Zach Rice for the starting pitching duty. Rice pitched the first five innings to get the victory, going to 5-0 on the season.

Josh Howard and Zach Vann homered in a three-run third inning for the Warriors to build a 4-1 lead at that point.

The Bruins put plenty of runners on and lots of pressure on Rice, then junior reliever Tyler Brown when he came on for Rice in the Bruin sixth, only for the Warrior pitchers to keep the lead safe.

“(Rice) has been solid all year. Actually, if you look at the pure stats, he’s maybe been our best guy,” said Nansemond River head coach Mark Stuffel.

With an undefeated record on the hill, there’s not much left to say about Rice’s performances this season, but allowing a few too many walks had been one thing to put the youngster in trouble on occasion said Stuffel.

Rice walked four Bruins and NR’s defense gave away two errors in his five innings but three bases-loaded situations in those five innings amounted to just single runs in the second and fifth frames.

“Tonight he kept the walks down and made (Western Branch) hit the ball to get runs. When he does that, it’s hard to score runs against him,” Stuffel said.

The Warriors took the lead in the top of the first and needed only one hit. Tyler Brown led off with a walk and Brandon Lowe’s one-out single sent Brown around to third. Vann rolled a grounder to first that was enough to score Brown.

The Warriors had nothing going in the third, with two out and no one on, before Howard smashed a liner over the leftfield fence for his fourth home run of the season.

Lowe kept the inning going with a single. Vann, NR’s lefty clean-up hitter, clubbed a chest-high pitch to the opposite field, carrying high down the leftfield line for a two-run homer and a 4-1 NR lead. Vann has three homers on the season.

Western Branch loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth. Rice kept the damage to a single run on a sacrifice fly.

With two outs and Bruin runners on the corners in the sixth, an error by Lowe at short allowed a run in for a 4-3 NR margin.

Lowe and Vann singled to set the table in the NR seventh. With two outs, Travis Johnson lined a shot to the gap in right-centerfield for a two-RBI double.

For the first time since the first inning, the Bruins didn’t threaten in the bottom of the seventh as Brown got the final three outs. A lack of a Bruin rally didn’t discount the importance of NR’s two insurance runs Stuffel said.

“That was huge, getting three swings in a row like that. (Johnson’s) hit let the kids relax a little. A one-run lead is a totally different feel than a three-run lead,” Stuffel said.

Rice allowed four hits, all singles, and struck out three. Brown gave up no hits, one walk and one intentional walk in his 2.0 innings for a save.

“Honestly, you want everything for this group of guys because they’ve worked hard. They’re great to coach every day. They’re easy to coach. You want stuff like this to happen for kids like this,” said Stuffel about the regional berth.

The Warriors met No. 1 Great Bridge in the district final Thursday evening. The Eastern Region Tournament starts Monday with all four quarterfinal games at Old Dominion. The Warriors pair versus Peninsula District season champion Woodside in the last game of the day at 7 p.m.