GLEN ALLEN—Grant Fuller froze, a flood of synapses assuring the Stafford senior that the umpire saw what he himself had felt.

The following is not in dispute: With the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning of Thursday’s Class 5 semifinal against Hickory, Fuller, a lefty, fouled a ball off his front foot.

But the play wasn’t ruled dead, so Fuller ran for his life. Ninety feet and a few tumultuous seconds later, the Indians still have a pulse following an 11–10 walkoff victory. Stafford will face Mills Godwin in Friday’s state championship game at Pitt Field on the campus of the University of Richmond, at 12:30 p.m.

“It’s unexplainable,” said Fuller, apparently unharmed by the mob of teammates who engulfed him on the infield turf. “We’ve done this before, but not with the comeback. I’ll never forget this.”

Trailing by a run going into the seventh, the Indians loaded the bases when Tristan McAlister buzzed the pitcher’s glove with a two-out line drive. Jimmy Baker worked a full count before drawing an RBI walk to tie the game at 10.

“Then,” as Indians coach Tommy Harrison recalled, “chaos.”

Despite Hickory coach Hank Kraft’s pleadings of, “One, one, one!” Hawks reliever Jarron Snellinger instead corralled the high-bouncing chopper and lunged at Fuller.

He tagged Fuller with his right hand. It did not contain a baseball.

“It looked like he lost his momentum and just hit me with his bare hand,” Fuller said.

For a second time, he kept running. Logan Steigerwald took advantage of the fracas to cross home plate for the winning run. Trailing only a few feet behind in foul territory was Harrison, who snared his courtesy runner in a celebratory hug.

“I couldn’t be more excited for this bunch right here to be able to play one more game,” Harrison said.

Stafford (25–2) struck first, going ahead 2–0 on Joe Tolson’s two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the first. The Indians led 3–1 after two innings, a typically unassailable advantage with senior ace Mike Tolson on the mound.

But the Hawks took advantage of RF&P’s intimate dimensions (the ballpark measures a mere 298 feet down the lines), getting two runs back on a no-doubt dinger off the bat of James Madison recruit Mason Dunaway in the top of the third.

Tolson departed with a 7–6 lead in the top of the sixth but had hardly reached the dugout steps before Hickory’s Tyler Bowes erased it with one compact swing. By the time Stafford came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, Hickory had parlayed its deficit into a three-run lead.

“Both teams didn’t want to see their season end,” said Kraft, whose Hawks (23–2) suffered just their second loss since March 27.

Stafford got back two runs in the bottom of the sixth on RBI singles by Jimmy Baker and Fuller, setting the stage for Fuller’s seventh-inning dramatics.

“That’s just who were are, man,” said Stafford junior Tucker Sullivan, who blew a six-out save only to earn the win in relief. “We fight.”

The Indians have one more bout remaining, and they won’t be pulling any punches. Harrison didn’t reveal his pitching plans, but senior West Virginia Wesleyan recruit Robbie Baker is in line to get the start.

“We’re going to have to scratch and claw,” Harrison said. “We’ll use everybody it takes to win the next one.”

     RHE
Hickory0123040   —1094
Stafford    222 102 2   —   11   12   1

Drew Stanley, Tyler Bowes (3), Mason Dunaway (7), JARRON SNELLINGER (7) and Zack Dzarnowski. Mike Tolson, TUCKER SULLIVAN (6) and Joe Tolson.

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Joey LoMonaco: 540/368-5045 jlomonaco@freelancestar.com

@joeylomonaco

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