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Northwestern District will feature three rounds this year

March 14, 2012
By Greg Brill
Special to The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER- Sherando baseball coach Pepper Martin wanted a change.

Handley coach Eddie Simmons liked the idea.

So, what developed?

The Northwestern District decided this season to expand its league games from eight to 12, meaning a third meeting between each of the five member schools. As Martin pointed out, three of the last five district regular season races had ended in a tie and forced a playoff to decide the Northwestern's automatic representative in the Region II playoffs.

Now with more games, no teams can split during their season series and if two teams finish tied at the end of the season, the one that had the advantage head-to-head in the three-game series gets the top spot in the district tournament and goes to regionals.

"I love it," said Simmons, who hopes to guide his squad back from a last-place finish in 2011. "It's nice to add in a few more district games. With bigger schedules, it will make it more obvious who the best teams are."

Brian Burke, who is beginning his second season as coach at Millbrook, is a fan of the change.

"I like it and think it is a good thing," Burke said. "I definitely don't want to have to worry about tiebreakers at the end of the season."

Regardless of how many games get played, all coaches are eager to see how things play out with their respective teams.

Sherando shared the Northwestern title with upstart Skyline in 2011, lost the district playoff game, then defeated the Hawks in the district final.

The Warriors may be the outright favorite going in, with pitchers Tre Porter, Darrell Thompson, Zach Wagner, and Reid Entsminger all back with experience as starters. In fact, Martin feels his pitching staff could go 10 deep.

"We have 10 that can pitch," said Martin, the only coach in the program's history. "We might not use all 10, but at least it gives us a lot more flexibility with matchups."

Millbrook must replace four of its top five hitters and Brady Baker, its No. 1 pitcher for the past three years.

Not that Burke is ready to throw in the towel. He has been encouraged by what he has seen so far from a team that will be led by veteran catcher Ethan Mathews (.432, 16 RBIs) and slugger Jeremiah Eaton (two homers, 11 RBIs).

"We're senior-heavy this year, so hopefully we'll benefit from that," Burke said. "I think we can be there in the end and challenge Sherando. I certainly have confidence that we can be in the top three [in the district]. I'd be disappointed if we were not."

Handley is coming off a winless season in district play, though it knocked off James Wood in the district play-in game and nearly upset top-seed Skyline.

The Judges won only three games total, and now must move on without one of the district's top outfielders the last few years in Aubrey Wilkerson and the transfer of 2011 Winchester Star Player of the Year Cody Unger to Middleburg Academy.

Handley also lost Nolan Potts, who led the team in innings pitched.

While his team is still full of youth, Simmons does have the advantage of returning four players that started as freshmen.

"We're still very young, but those guys have a lot of experience already," Simmons said. "I don't think I'm going to have any problems putting people in the lineup, wherever that might be. I have faith in all of them."

James Wood is still building, and the loss of top pitcher Matt Copley left a big void on the mound. The Colonels are coming off a six-win season and lost a few of their top hitters to graduation.

Still, James Wood coach Jared Mounts knows that if his team can stay sharp and cut down on mistakes, anything is possible within the district.

"We believe Sherando will be one of the top teams in the district again this season," Mounts said. "For us, we will have to manufacture runs and play solid defense to be competitive."

Skyline shocked the Northwestern by going from last in 2010 to first last season, but will take on almost an entire new look this season. Second-year coach Ben Taylor returns only pitcher Joe Bass and shortstop Chaz Rutherford from a team that made the Region II playoffs for the first time.