The Road: Top-seeded Miller looks for first championship since ’06

It’s Monday afternoon and the Miller baseball team is getting in one last practice before the VISAA Division 2 tournament begins. The Mavericks have made the final four in each of the last three years and were the runner ups on two of those occasions. The Mavericks have one state title in school history and that was a Division 3 title back in 2006. As the top seed this year, this title opportunity means a lot. But getting there is easier said than done.


With a quarterfinal with Hargrave looming just a day away, Miller has hopes that its 14-game winning streak will be extended, that Tuesday will be the start of the much awaited run. While the Mavericks are the top seed in the dance and boast arguably the most talent rich roster in the state, this group knows that means nothing if you don’t show up ready to go.


“I’m going to remind them today, this game with Hargrave is the game we have to worry about right now,” said Miller Billy Wagner. “It’s our biggest game of the season.”


For the last few years Wagner has talked a good bit about how as a coach, he can’t go out and play the game for his players, that the onus is on them once this tournament begins. But there are little things. So what’s he doing on the Monday before the quarterfinals? With a handful of players on the roster feeling under the weather, Wagner’s brought a jar of vitamin-C pills and given one to each player. That’s baseball thinking. It’s all in the details. You can’t play if you’re sick. So vitamins are step one on the road to glory.


The leadership


With five seniors, the Mavericks have as much experience as any coach could ask for. Will Wagner, Billy’s oldest son, is one of them. He’s played for Miller since he was in eighth grade and already played in four state tournaments with nine total state playoff games under his belt. He’s a team captain this year and hitting .444 with five home runs and 37 RBI. He’s a pivotal piece of the defense and anchors the hot corner at third base. This week is his high school career swan song before he heads off to play for Liberty University next where he’ll be reunited with former teammate Jack Morris. As a captain, Will Wagner is enthusiastic about the prospects of this week.


“We’ve been building to this since the fall between scrimmages and workouts in the winter,” Wagner said. “We got off to a tough start going 0-3 but we’ve built up a lot of wins since then and that was really good for us. I’m so excited for this week. Now we just have to play our butts off and hope things work out our way.”


Since that 0-3 start, Miller had won 24 of 25 going into the state tournament. So far, Liberty Christian is the only school in the state of Virginia to have beaten the Mavericks, and that was just a 5-4 loss. After that shaky start, the Miller leadership really took over. But this isn’t a crew that spends a lot of time trying to hype each other up. The stepping up was in the action, not the words. This is a “talk is cheap” kind of group.


“We’re a team that doesn’t have local leaders, they’re all just field generals and that’s unique because usually at this age you’ve got some ‘rah-rah’ but half these guys don’t even know what that means,” Billy Wagner said. “When they’re out here they just know what they’re doing. The high pressure situations, you hope they step up and say ‘Hey, I’ve been here before.’ You don’t have to talk the talk all the time to be a good team. It’s all about producing.”


The order


And there’s no shortage of production, particularly offensively. Leadoff hitter and University of Virginia commit Tanner Morris is hitting .525 with three home runs, 15 doubles and 48 runs. He’s one of the largest heads of the Hydra in this lineup and a truly versatile talent. Morris hits for power. He takes pitches the other way. He’s the team’s top baserunner with 24 stolen bases. He’s a real problem to deal with because on top of all of that, he’s a cerebral hitter.


“When I’m up there I’m looking at pitch sequences,” Morris said. “A lot of pitchers in high school are going to go with the same sequence and the elite level hitters will sit on deck and know what’s coming. The other day against Covenant we noticed they were throwing breaking balls when it was an 0-1 count most of the time. So we accounted for that the next time through.”


With Clemson commit Adam Hackenberg batting second in the order with his .430 batting average, five home runs, 11 doubles and 36 RBI, teams have to decide in the first inning whether they want to pitch to one of these two or start the game. Those are two big decisions that have to be made, and you can’t put them around them both before Will Wagner comes to the plate as the three hitter. That’s the first dilemma each first inning of each game for Miller’s opponents. And the second wave of hitters represent the rest of the puzzle.


With Ethan Murray, a Duke commit, hitting .473 with 41 RBI and Jackson Barrett — last year’s leadoff hitter, mind you — batting .463 with 25 RBI that’s a sample what an opposing pitcher and coach has to navigate after those first three batters. Add junior Carson Atkins who’s hitting .353 with 27 RBI and now that’s six different hitters with 25 or more RBI for the Mavericks. So what do you do if you’re on the mound?


“If you’re a pitcher you have to be very careful and mix us up as a team,” said Murray, who’s the number one pitcher for the Mavericks. “We’ve got so much depth and each hitter is so different, we can attack and we can power the ball the other way — so truthfully, if I was up against us, I would have no idea what to do. I’d just trust my coach to call the right pitches I guess.”


And that explains why Miller won 14 regular season games by double digits. Sometimes, especially when all the parts are moving together, there’s nothing you can do about this lineup.


“All of us are playing together year round and so what we’re doing is developing better players,” Morris said. “I feel like this team has come together more than we did last year and that’s helped too.”


The pitching


Of course the flip side of those 24 regular season win and 14 blowouts is that Miller has some great pitching. It starts up front with Murray who had a breakout year as a sophomore for the Mavericks last year.


Murray has given up five runs all year, and only four earned. He’s surrendered just 17 hits and issued just 17 walks. He’s done that over 52 innings pitched. That gives him a WHIP (walks and hits divided by innings pitched) of just .653 meaning that opposing teams get less than two thirds of a base runner per inning when Murray is on the hill. With 68 strikeouts and a 0.52 ERA, he’s the dominant ace that Miller always seems to have come tournament time. In 2014 it was Mike Daly who is now at VCU. In 2015, it was a three-headed monster of Daly, Morris and another talent now at VCU, Connor Gillispie. Murray was the number two starter behind Gillispie last year and has quickly become one of Central Virginia’s most dominant pitchers, which, particularly this year, is saying something.


“I watched him pitch one of his worst games ever, the first game against Covenant and he threw a one hitter, just battled through it without his best stuff,” Billy Wagner said. “He’s so savvy. He can be quick to the plate and his stuff is electric at times. He’s pitching at 88 to 91 (miles per hour) and then he’s pitching at 78 to 80. His breaking ball has been very consistent. As the game goes, he goes.”


Behind Murray is the breakout performer of this year’s staff, Stu Barrett. The junior has thrown 32.1 innings and sports a 2.60 ERA with 29 strikeouts and just 16 walks. The Mavericks have four different pitcher with 20-plus innings of experience this year with Matt Sykes’ 1.88 ERA of 22.1 innings and Jeremy Wagner’s 2.67 ERA over 21 innings.


“Finding those guys was the key early on because we didn’t know what we really had other than Ethan,” Hackenberg said. “We have a lot of young pitchers which is great because the whole staff will be back next year. But Stu Barrett has really stepped up and worked hard.”


The new guy and the defense


One thing that makes this staff better is the guy behind the dish. Runners can rarely run on Hackenberg. He soaks everything up that’s thrown his way. A standout catcher always boosts a pitching staffs confidence.


When Hackenberg made the choice to focus on baseball instead of football, it carried a weighty decision in transferring from a traditional football powerhouse in Fork Union to what’s become a powerhouse in baseball in Miller.


“It didn’t take a long time to get into the team feeling,” Hackenberg said. “It happened pretty quickly. We did a lot of stuff together in the fall and winter.”


It’s been a bit of an adjustment for Hackenberg as he’s walked into a program brimming with baseball-centric minds. The junior has been taken a bit aback by just how much he’s been able to learn and even from the program’s youth.


“I was mostly a football player before coming here,” Hackenberg said. “Playing with guys that are pure baseball players, I mean I’m learning a lot from younger guys because this is what they do. It’s helped me mature as a player. It’s taught me about my options as a catcher with a guy on first base, sneaky plays there or picking off a guy at second. All I have to do is give a guy a look. I do that a lot with Jack Marshall at first base. He’s always there even when I don’t see him when I’m making the throw. Just being around guys who love baseball has made me better mentally and physically.”


Hackenberg is a huge addition to an already wealthy defense. Wagner, Morris and Murray are all elite defenders in the infield. Jackson Barrett leads an athletic outfield and has a perfect fielding percentage. Jeremy Wagner and Lucus Knight have both had huge years defensively too and have yet to make an error. In addition to the pitching, there’s a reason the Mavericks have allowed an average of just two runs a game. And since March 21st and the three-game skid to start the year, that average has dipped to just 1.38.


The tournament


On Tuesday, Hargrave came to Crozet and absorbed an 11-0 loss to make it four straight trips to the final four for Miller. With the tournament now headed to Shepherd Stadium in Colonial Heights, the Mavericks will face Highland on Friday at 11 a.m. for the opportunity to get back to the state title game for the third time in four years. Miller has seen Highland before, back on April 21 and walked away with a 15-5 win. While the focus is obviously on Highland for Friday, the other side of the bracket is worth noting. The winner of the Miller vs. Highland will see Covenant or Atlantic Shores with the latter Seahorses showing why you can’t take any game for granted as they defeated second seed and back-to-back champs Greenbrier Christian on Tuesday.


That sets the table for a busy Friday in Colonial Heights. But this is hardly new territory for Miller. Now it’s just about playing the game this team knows and loves.


“With Tanner, Adam, Will, Ethan and Jackson, we’ve just got a lot of experience, guys that have played a lot of baseball,” Billy Wagner said. “I think the experience part can play a big part for us. Maybe it means we aren’t tight at the plate, things like that. You never know. But winning it all always comes down to making one play. So who’s going to go out there, play, relax and do what they’ve been doing all year?”


Time will soon tell.