A few weeks into the season, the Paul VI Catholic baseball team was in an unfamiliar place.
Accustomed to challenging for the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title and among the region’s top-ranked teams, the Panthers were struggling. They were .500 after a 5-3 loss to Good Counsel on April 5 and even after reaching the final of the Southeastern Baseball Classic in Hartsville, S.C., Paul VI was just 9-8 and came home after being thumped 11-1 in five innings by Cuthbertson, N.C.
Oddly, after that loss, Coach Billy Emerson and his staff talked in the dugout and felt their team might have turned a corner during their spring break trip. Helping matters was the return of William & Mary recruit Mitch Aker, who did not pitch after the season’s third game but was cleared to play outfield and bat.
The Panthers returned home, won 14 of their final 17 games, including the WCAC championship and on Saturday capped their season with a 5-3 victory over Benedictine in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division 1 tournament in Colonial Heights.
“This was a group of kids, with 15 seniors, you’ve got a little bit more maturity on your team and they bought into it,” said Emerson, who announced before the season this would be his final year on the bench as he focuses on being the athletic director at the Fairfax private school. “And the young guys bought into it as well.”
Paul VI (23-11) won eight of nine playoff games, but it was far from easy. The Panthers edged McNamara, 3-2, in the decisive game of the best-of-3 WCAC finals. On Saturday, they relied on pitcher Braedon Lawson — who fired a complete game in that McNamara victory — despite a fever that prevented him from attending Friday’s 5-1 semifinal victory over Bishop Ireton. Lawson managed to last three innings Saturday, leaving with a 5-1 lead.
Robbie Newell gave up single runs in the fourth and fifth innings before Mark Gunst — throwing on two days of rest — pitched a scoreless sixth and seventh.
Offensively, catcher Blake Banet led the way by going 3-for-4 with two runs batted in as the Panthers won their fourth VISAA title. Their WCAC title the previous weekend was Paul VI’s third in six years. Emerson now hands things off to assistant Jeff Nolan, with whom he has worked for 10 years.
“With Jeff and some of my other assistants that are staying, the real brains behind the operation are going to get to take over,” Emerson said jokingly.