Stone Bridge 4, Broad Run 2

It's not easy for a coach to acknowledge that taking a step back might be the best thing for his team, but Stone Bridge baseball coach Sam Plank did. After watching his team struggle early this season, Plank sat down with his players and tried to find a new approach.

"I took them out in left field after the [loss at home to] Loudoun Valley [on April 16], and I let them talk," said Plank, whose team had fallen to 4-4 with the loss. "Sometimes as a coach, you really have to sit and listen to your players. We needed to move forward. But we were butting heads a little bit, and it wasn't working.

"I told them I needed them to come ready to play like champions every game. They told me they needed me to step back a little bit because I was getting too uptight and just let them play. We haven't lost many since."

In fact, Stone Bridge's 4-2 victory over host Broad Run on Tuesday marked the ninth consecutive win for the Bulldogs, who at 12-2 in the district finished tied with Loudoun Valley for the Dulles District regular season title. The teams played an extra game last night to determine the recipient of the league's automatic berth into the Region II tournament. (That game ended too late to be included in this edition.)

"Early in the season, coach was riding us pretty hard," said Stone Bridge senior third baseman Jeff Lee, who went 2 for 3 Tuesday with a single, double, RBI and a run scored. "We thought he was going to have a heart attack or something. But he figured out that if we're all tensed up, we don't do too well. He learned to relax, and we started playing like he knew we were capable of."

Such changes were evident against Broad Run. Needing a victory to force the playoff game, Plank and the rest of the Bulldogs stayed calm through a sixth-inning rally by the Spartans that turned a four-run lead into much tighter 4-2 game. Plank stayed with sophomore pitcher Ryan Shugars in the seventh and was rewarded for his patience when Shugars struck out the side for the second time, having also taken out three straight batters swinging in the third.

The Spartans (14-5, 9-5) finished third in the district but will host a first-round tournament game Friday.

"You really have to give credit to Stone Bridge," Broad Run Coach Pat Cassidy said. "They were down early and so everyone looked at Loudoun Valley as the front-runner, but Stone Bridge has just been so hot lately. They have great pitching and such strong hitters. They can beat you with the top, middle and bottom of their lineup."

And the Bulldogs are having fun doing it. The players, 12 of whom are seniors, take pleasure in poking fun at the head coach who has been with them throughout their careers. Of course, winning provides that luxury.

"This is what they do; do you hear them?" Plank asked, laughing, as his players remained in the dugout at Broad Run mimicking him. "They sit around on Friday and Saturday night and use all my lines."

Stone Bridge third baseman Jeff Lee and catcher Adam Ventre (11) both have their sights set on making the catch on a pop fly, but in the end, Ventre comes down with the ball. The Bulldogs won their ninth straight game to finish 12-2 in the district.Sophomore pitcher Ryan Shugars breathes a sigh of relief after the final out.