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Oh so close

South Boston News
Briar Woods courtesy runner Jake Rayfield (17) sprints ahead of the late throw to Comet catcher Clay Lloyd to score the winning run in the bottom of the 14th inning in the state final. (David Conner II photos) / June 11, 2017

This year’s Comet baseball community will replay Saturday’s state 5A final again and again, all summer and beyond.

Halifax County High School was right there, poised to claim its second state crown, holding a 4-2 lead with Briar Woods down to its last two outs in the bottom of the seventh.

And Halifax could not close the deal. The Falcons rallied to force a 4-4 tie heading into extra innings.

From there, both teams scratched and clawed all the way to the bottom of the 14th inning before Briar Woods finally secured the state title.

In the end, the teams shook hands and then the Falcons stood and applauded Halifax as the Comets accepted their state runner-up trophies.

This state final had a little bit of everything.

Both teams had mistakes in the field, accounting for three errors. Both showed remarkable grit, battling through fatigue, gut-wrenching near misses to seal the deal earlier, and other types of adversity.

In the end, Halifax finished with five hits, Briar Woods 11. Both teams had gutsy mound efforts and there were high-wire escape acts on both sides until the fateful 14th.

Both teams can look back at certain at-bats and realize how baseball is often a game of inches. Both teams had blown opportunities and misfires on specific at-bats that could have made the difference earlier.

Briar Woods had the home team designation. The Falcons advanced to the state finals after dousing Menchville, 6-1, in the state tournament semifinals. Halifax rode the strong left arm of Andrew Abbott Friday, clutch RBI production from Josh Barker and excellent defense to eliminate a strong Prince George team, 2-0, in Friday semifinals action.

The Comets had some hard-hit balls that were right at Briar Woods defenders. That’s how it started in the top of the first. Leadoff batter Abbott cranked a well-hit ball seized by the shortstop. Tyler Duffer was robbed at second by fine Briar Woods defense.

Briar Woods starter Sean Clark then got a strikeout to end the inning.

Halifax found trouble in the bottom of the first.

Briar Woods offensive sparkplug and leadoff hitter Jake Kleifges slapped a solid leadoff single. Alex Bjornsen blasted a double down the left field line, and a throwing error on the relay - with multiple Comets in place to stop the ball - led to the first Falcon run.

Michael Ludowig cracked an RBI single, and the Falcons were up 2-0 against Comet starter Carlton Redd.

Eventually, Redd was able to end the damage. It was also his final run allowed all game. Redd eventually went five and a third innings, with five hits allowed and six strikeouts. He did not walk anyone and gave up two runs, one earned, in a big-game pitching effort.

Redd plowed through the bottom of the third, as Brayden Moore made a quality catch in center and the Comet starter got Ludowig with crisp fielding on a ball hit back to the pitcher.

The Comets had a solid fourth inning, scoring four runs on four hits.

Abbott led off with a single and Duffer walked. Clay Lloyd doubled to get the Comets on the board with an RBI.

Clark was driven from the game and then Ludowig took over. He got an out, but then Drew Harlow lofted a catchable fly ball into center. But the Falcons let the ball drop and the second run scored.

Barker, the legitimate postseason hero, stepped up and looped a very tricky blooper down left field, getting two more runs home.

Halifax could not do any more damage, but the momentum had clearly shifted.

The Comet defense made some solid plays in the fifth to help keep the Falcons off the board.

Harlow came on in the bottom of the sixth and ran into some turbulence, but Hunter Watts contributed excellent defense at first, and shortstop Dawson Watts also made a hard-charging key defensive play with an excellent throw to get the second out. HCHS eventually got out of trouble there.

Then the direction of the game changed in the bottom of the seventh.

Lloyd showed great hustle in making a fine throw on a chopper down the line. He fired the ball to Watts, and Halifax was two outs away.

From there, a shot at the state title unraveled for the Comets.

Harlow got an 1-2 count on Brandon Hamm before the Falcon singled to left. Briar Woods’ Jack Jackal was hit by a pitch.

Tyler Germanowski walked to load the bases with one out, with the fan base screaming for more. Harlow had reached a 3-2 count before the walk.

Jake Kleifges sent a tricky liner to second, and Halifax might have had at least a force on a clean play. But the ball was difficult to field, and Briar Woods scampered to force a 4-4 tie.

Still, Harlow and the Comets lived to play on. Harlow got a critical strikeout for the second inning. Ludowig was intentionally walked.

Finally, Harlow fanned George Rosales for the final out.

From there, both teams lamented opportunities.

In the Comet eighth, Duffer was hit by a pitch to give Halifax the potential winning run with no one out. He then took second on a passed ball.

Lloyd grounded out and Holt Powell fanned. Harlow struck out to end the frame.

Abbott had to leave at this point to attend his sister’s wedding.

Briar Woods went relatively quietly in its half of the eighth.

Harlow got a groundout on a well-played effort by Watts, and Duffer contributed a solid effort on the second out of the inning. Harlow ended the eighth on a strikeout.

In the Comet ninth, Moore walked to lead off the inning. But Ludowig got out of trouble.

Harlow took a shot off his leg and still got the out to highlight the Briar Woods ninth, as Halifax had plenty of spirit left.

Lloyd cracked a deep fly ball to center to end the Comet tenth.

Then, Briar Woods created trouble in its half of the tenth. Ludowig cracked a one out single. After a force, Harlow plunked Clark. Wilson Ayers was out on a swinging strike, but the ball got past Lloyd and he reached to load the sacks.

Duffer later made one of the best defensive plays of the game, keeping his concentration intact even as he backpedaled to snuff out a bases-loaded threat.

In the Comet 11th, Powell drew a leadoff walk. Ludowig was relieved by J. Jaekle. Harlow bunted Powell to second, and a Moore groundout got Powell to third.

Barker stepped up, but lofted a fly ball out to end the inning.

The teams battled into the 12th, as Alex Lowery gave it a good ride before the ball was caught in left field.

Lowery entered in the 12th. He ran into a dash of trouble here. With two outs, Rosales was hit by a pitch and Clark produced a chopper. Clark was safe at first. But Lowery got a key strikeout.

Duffer walked to lead off the 13th, and he reached second on a wild pitch. But Powell and Harlow produced outs, with the go-ahead run stranded at third.

Halifax got out of the 13th inning, and headed to the top of the 14th. The Comets could not do any damage there.

Briar Woods reached the impactful 14th.

The game was briefly delayed as Ludowig got medical treatment. He eventually got a walk.

Harlow made a late throw on a tricky grounder off the bat of Rosales, and Briar Woods had runners on first and second with one out.

On an 0-1 count, Clark snuffed out the Comets’ dreams of the state crown by driving a walk off RBI single, and the Falcons celebrated.

Halifax now has three baseball state runner-up finishes (1981, 1995 and 2017) to its credit. Coach Kenneth Day, who has four solid postseason runs and now a state runner-up finish on his resume, left Fairfax hungry for more next season.

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