When a team advances deep into the postseason, it is a triumph not only for the players and coaches. It also is so for the families, school and youth league instructors who had a hand in nurturing and developing the talent.
In the case of Lake Braddock baseball, the defending Virginia AAA champions who play in the state semifinals Saturday, there might be another group wallowing in the success: The Northern Virginia medical community.
In the state tournament for the sixth time in eight years, Lake Braddock has slogged, and is still slogging, through a series of ailments. They include the following: Broken arms, back stress fractures, torn labrums and knee and elbow ailments, and Tommy John surgery for senior left-hander Thomas Rogers, who only recently returned to action.
Before the season, senior first baseman-outfielder Mitch Spille, the team’s would-be cleanup hitter, tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder — while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Bruins don’t play catch, they play Operation.
At times this season there were so many players unavailable that some non-senior reserves had to fork over their jerseys to junior varsity pitchers called up to fill in.
Meredith Sheeron, in her 12th season as certified athletic trainer at Lake Braddock, said she has not encountered so many major injuries on one team, and that includes the contact sports.
“Not even close,” she said. “This is just such a random series of events to happen to these kids.”
“We always made a joke about it, that there was a curse,” said senior center fielder Alex Gransback.
The Bruins (23-4) are set to face Great Bridge (22-3) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Westfield in a state semifinal with a leadoff hitter (junior Jack Owens) who is a step slow because of patellar tendinitis; without dependable sophomore pitcher Matt Supko, who hurt himself in the Northern Region tournament; and with a catcher (senior Garett Driscoll, the team’s only first-team all-region pick), who receives shoulder therapy after every game (and whose brother, Logan, broke his elbow diving for a ball in the outfield).
Even so, the Bruins, who are trying to become the second Virginia AAA back-to-back state champion in 23 years, are in better physical shape than they were three months ago.
“At times you couldn’t run full practices because you didn’t have guys to do certain things,” said Lake Braddock Coach Jody Rutherford, the 2012 All-Met coach of the year, who joined the fractured fray during the offseason by tearing his Achilles’ playing pickup basketball.
“I pulled aside the kids who were core players from last year’s group and told them that what happens early on isn’t indicative of what we’re potentially capable of at the end. They’ve played long enough to know that [in the playoffs] is when we need to be at our best, and that helped them buy into things. Because at one point and time the injury thing got so ridiculous it could have been easy for them to blow off the season.”
The Bruins not only have relied on Sheeron and another Lake Braddock athletic trainer, BranDee Allen, but also physical therapist Kristy Murphy, Rutherford’s sister, who has taped and treated and advised, no longer just a spectator at her brother’s games.
Lake Braddock did have a few things in its favor this season. The Bruins are Northern Virginia’s winningest program in the past decade, with a 207-49 record, so they are accustomed to being successful no matter who is in the lineup.
Senior right-hander Nick McIntyre, who had left Lake Braddock for O’Connell last season, returned to the team and became the default ace. It was a most welcome addition. Rogers at the time was shelved, senior J.P. Anthony had transferred to West Springfield and senior Nick Balenger had sustained a career-ending spinal cord injury in Hawaii.
Rogers pitched the Bruins’ state quarterfinal and championship wins last year and threw a season-high 91 pitches in their state quarterfinal victory over Patriot on Tuesday. He had returned weeks if not months ahead of schedule from his Tommy John procedure to provide a late-season boost.
The health issues, serious as they have been, have come amid the backdrop of a traumatic injury. Balenger, who would have been one of the team’s top pitchers, is in a wheelchair in the dugout, now serving as an inspirational leader.
“It’s good to have him around,” Rutherford said. “The kids kind of look at what he’s been through and everything else seems to be that much easier.”
“A lot of people counted us out at the beginning of the year, saying, ‘Lake Braddock, they’ve got no shot,’ ” McIntyre said Tuesday night with an icepack on his shoudler as he exited the stadium following his final career home game.
“It’s kind of awesome to say, ‘We’re coming back.’ ”