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WINCHESTER — Coming off a rough outing the previous evening, James Wood relief pitcher Daniel Franceschi was back on the mound trying to close out Friday’s contest that meant a little more to the Colonels.

With three outs, James Wood would clinch the Class 4 Northwestern District regular-season title, a Region 4C semifinal berth and the top seed for the district tournament.

Franceschi was able to get out of a seventh-inning jam as the Colonels held on to knock off the Pioneers 3-1 at R. Charles Hott Field.

Franceschi certainly didn’t come into Friday’s save opportunity off a stellar outing. On Thursday, he entered a contest at Sherando with the Colonels ahead 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth and he literally could not throw a strike.

“Last night was a rough outing,” he said of the contest that the Colonels won 2-1. “I went out there and threw four straight balls. It was pretty frustrating.”

Franceschi admitted the performance nagged at him, but a vote of confidence from Colonels coach Adrian Pullen helped. “It was in my head all night,” Franceschi said. “I woke up and I just had to think it was a new day and a new opportunity. When Coach Pullen texted me early in the morning saying it would be a new day for us and that he still had faith in me, that really helped get that out of my head.”

“He’s just like the rest of our seniors,” Pullen said. “They all believe in themselves. We talk about it all of the time, ‘There’s going to be good and there’s going to be bad, but you’ve got to find that middle road. You can’t get too high or too low. Tomorrow is a new day and that’s the beauty of the game.”

Like the previous day, the outing didn’t start the way Franceschi wanted. Brady Price led off with a sharp single to left and after falling behind 2-0 Franceschi hit Tanner Barb with a pitch.

But from there, Franceschi got tough. He struck out Hogan Newlin and Colin Stephanites, who both entered the contest with .500 on-base percentages.

But to get the save, Franceschi would have to get out the area’s best hitter. Carl Keenan entered the contest with a .520 batting average and had one of Pioneers’ five hits.

The battle lasted just one pitch and Keenan grounded the ball to shortstop Eli Miller, who flipped to second baseman Colin McGuire for a force at second to end the game.

“Props to him. He’s having a great season,” Franceschi said of Keenan, who also led the area in on-base percentage (.629) and runs (32) and was third in RBIs (21). “It’s always hard facing him. He’s one of the best hitters I’ve had to face, but I just know I can trust myself and trust what I have. My coaches trust it so it makes it work.

“It was pretty nerve-racking to go out there in a close 3-1 ballgame, but I had so much trust in my defense and my coaches and what they were calling," he added. "I just had trust in my players and I felt good out there.”

Both teams struggled to come up with the big hit, but the Colonels did get an early lead they never lost.

Facing Millbrook’s Ryan Liero, who was making his first varsity start, James Wood scratched out a run in the first. Eli Miller and Kemper Omps led off with singles and moved up on a fly ball by Jared Neal. McGuire walked to load the bases and the Colonels got the lead when John Copenhaver walked.

Liero averted further damage by striking out Nick Bell and Deuce Strosnider to end the inning.

The Pioneers missed a golden opportunity to tie or take the lead in the third against McGuire. With one out, Stephanites walked and moved to second on Keenan’s single. Micah George then lined a pitch down the right-field line that Sam Jackson dove for, but couldn’t grab. Unable to see whether the ball was caught or not, Stephanites didn’t immediately break as was held at third to load the bases.

Facing two dangerous hitters, McGuire fanned Nate Brookshire (area-best 27 RBIs) and got Chase Ford (17 RBIs) to ground into a force play.

James Wood expanded the lead in the third. Neal led of with a single, moved to second on a wild pitch and eventually scored on Bell’s RBI chopper into right field to make it 2-0.

The Colonels loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth on two hits and a walk. With one out, pinch-hitter Ethan Pingley drew a walk to make it 3-0, but Liero got out of the jam on two fly balls. In his five-inning stint, Liero allowed seven hits, six walks and had four strikeouts, but he stranded 10 runners on base, including six in scoring position.

“Ryan did a heck of a job,” Millbrook coach Brian Burke said. “He kept us in the baseball game. For the first start of his high school career and to be put in this situation, he gave us a chance to win. We just didn’t do what we needed to do offensively to support such a good effort. … He never gave up a big inning. That’s a heart of a competitor.”

The Pioneers finally got to McGuire in the sixth. With one out, Brookshire walked, moved up two bases on a wild pitch and a passed ball and scored on Ford’s RBI single. Garett McAlexander relieved and with Ford moving on a 3-2 pitch, Liero lined into a double play to shortstop Miller.

McGuire, who improved to an area-best 8-0, said he was dog-tired after allowing four hits and a run with three walks and five strikeouts.

“It’s a complete adrenaline rush from the moment you wake up that morning,” said McGuire of facing the Pioneers. “You’ve got to prepare the entire day for a team like Millbrook. That’s what I did and they are a great hitting baseball team. I was struggling with my fastball, but luckily I was keeping them off-balance with my breaking balls.”

Neither team committed an error in the contest. Miller was a part of two double plays and Millbrook shortstop Keenan also started a double play. Neal and Price each had two hits. Copenhaver was 1-for-1 with two walks and Brookshire walked twice.

“This game wasn’t too big for any of the players,” Burke emphasized. “This game wasn’t too big for any of the coaches tonight. It might have been too big for other people on the field, though.”

McGuire said finishing unbeaten in the league was certainly an accomplishment for James Wood, which placed second in Class 4 last season, but was second to Millbrook in the district regular season.

“It’s really impressive,” the senior right-hander said. “In the three years that I’ve been on varsity, the first two years Millbrook has had our number. They’ve beaten us so many times. You have no idea what it means to beat a team of that caliber.”

“It means a lot,” Pullen said of the unbeaten district campaign. “It means a lot to our kids. They work hard every day. They believe in what we’re doing and they believe in each other. That’s what is awesome.”

Burke said finishing second in the regular season doesn’t take away from what the Pioneers have achieved after heavy graduation losses. “This does not taint my overall feeling and image of this team whatsoever,” Burke said. “I’m still super proud of what we have been able to accomplish. There is no one in this area who thought we'd do what we have been able to do this year.”

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