Washington 8U finishes second in state championship

Published 6:05 pm Monday, August 1, 2016

BOONE — One of the most rewarding things about sports is the experience it can provide athletes — especially younger ones. Washington’s 8U all-star baseball team learned that when it traveled to Boone for the state championship tournament.

This group of young, talented players earned the trip of a lifetime thanks to months of hard work and dedication from them, the coaching staff and their parents. They got to step on to fields that other players may only dream of. They played their opening game against Ashe County at Watuga High School and played their other four contests at Appalachian State’s stadium.

They nearly won it all, too. Washington bounced back from a second-round loss in the double-elimination tournament and eventually earned the right to play South Edgecombe for the title, but fell short in a 12-6 loss.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opening ceremony where the kids got to walk out on a high school field at Watuga,” coach Jason Arnold said. “They got recognized with a whole field full of teams.”

Washington set its tone of offensive dominance early on with an 18-2 win in the first round. However, it struggled to keep their bats hot when it ran into Dare County in the second round. A 12-1 loss saw it relegated to the loser’s bracket, but Washington remained resilient.

“I don’t know if it was nerves or butterflies or being overwhelmed by such an amazing place, but we didn’t so well on Friday morning,” Arnold said. “The kids were resilient and bounced right back in a game later that afternoon.”

After the loss, Washington, facing elimination, had to come back out and play Hildebran. The all stars stayed alive with a dominant 15-4 showing to propel them into back-to-back one-run games.

Both games on Saturday were rematches of earlier meetings. Ashe County played Washington closer the second time around, but the all stars squeaked out a 12-11 win. The victory punched their ticket for another clash with Dare County, which was coming off a 10-4 loss to South Edgecombe.

Washington went on to best Dare County in a 17-16 shootout. Avenging the earlier loss was nice, but the realization that the boys now had a shot at the state championship was surreal.

“The reality didn’t set in with the kids until after the game when we were having a quick talk about what we’re doing. The kids were in the dugout joking about going to the pool,” Arnold said. “The coaches, we were stressed beyond belief and the kids’ light, comical attitudes kept us laughing. Reality set in that Sunday they were going to play for the state championship.”

South Edgecombe came out on top with a 12-6 win. Washington finished as the runners up in the state and earned some valuable experience along the way.

“The experience was phenomenal and the kids learned a lot. I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of kids or coaches. Period,” Arnold said.

As impressive as the second-place finish in the state tournament was the exceptional degree of mental toughness exhibited by the young ball players. They were able to take in what was surely an overwhelming experience and bounce back from an early loss to finish as runners up.

“Words probably can’t describe how impressed I was with their resilience to the situation,” Arnold said. “A couple heads got down, but we went right back to the same things we talked about all season — having fun and supporting your team. The next game (after losing), it was like those kids forgot about what happened that morning. They got back to work playing their kind of baseball.

“It blew us away that we could go from the way we played that morning to the way we played that afternoon. We really took control of how we wanted to finish in that tournament.”

Mason Rhem knocked a grand slam to help give Washington the lead in its rematch with Dare County. It was a highlight of what was an explosive couple of days for Washington’s offense. Defensively, Arnold said there was plenty of phenomenal defensive plays made all around.

When all was said and done and the team arrived safely back in Washington, Arnold had one last message.

“One thing I’d like to say is I appreciate all the support from all the parents and coaches to help us mold this team into the amazing young guys they are,” he said. “I appreciate all their support and help for getting us to the state championship. That was a lot to ask of all the parents on such short notice. The team really appreciates that.”