Tight-Knit Champs: Fluvanna baseball blasts past Tabb to win program’s first title

Photo by Bart Isley

After the initial dogpile following the last out, there was an almost subdued nature to the celebration for Fluvanna County’s baseball team.


But when a state title is nearly 30 years in the making for the school’s athletic department and a first for the baseball program itself, maybe you just want to soak it in. Maybe you just want to peacefully enjoy the moment, the hard work, the sacrifice it required and the people that got you there. The hard work and the people that made a 16-10 romp over Tabb in the Class 3 state title game happen Friday.


“I’m speechless right now, I can’t believe I’m in this situation,” said Fluvanna senior Ryan Groome who got the ball rolling in the first inning by running out an infield error. “It’s crazy and I’m glad we did it.”


The championship is the program’s first and the school’s first title from a sports team since 1990.


Groome reaching base set off a huge five-run fifth inning and the Flucos never really stopped scoring after that, piling up 19 hits including a trio of home runs by the state semifinal game’s hero Jacob Critzer, Toby Sherman and Andrew Ward. Kevin Ward knocked in four runs and Andrew Ward knocked in another three while going 5-for-6 Critzer went 2-for-3 and drew three walks.


After Groome got on, things really started snowballing when senior Kyle Algieri connected on a two-RBI double to right field as part of a 3-for-4 day. That pushed the lead to 5-0. In the aftermath of the victory, Algieri, the squad’s longtime second baseman, was pretty attached to the trophy that the squad’s core of players, who’ve been together since they were in elementary school, sought for so long. It’s a  journey includes last year’s state semifinal run that ended at the hands of Abingdon, overcoming a major deficit in the region tournament against Broadway and the state semifinal rally just hours before they took possession of the trophy Friday.


“We’re all brothers out here and we’ve been playing for this since the moment we stepped on the field,” Algieri said.


That big first inning gave Wyatt Dansey, a junior reliever tasked with starting the game for the Flucos with Andrew and Kevin Ward unavailable after Thursday’s semifinal, a lead from the moment he stepped on the mound. Dansey was up for the moment too, throwing 3.2 solid innings and holding Tabb in check while the offense kept ringing up runs. He struck out three and allowed just four hits and four runs against a hard-hitting Tigers squad.


“His ERA was 0.47, it was the lowest ERA on the team but of course he didn’t have the number of innings because the two horses ate them up all year,” said Fluvanna coach Joel Gray. “I knew he was nervous, but he battled, I’m proud of him and the one that came in behind him.”


Krstian Negron took over for Dansey and threw well. His left-handed sidewinder delivery proved to be enough of a change from hard-throwing righty Dansey to keep Tabb from clawing their way back into the game. He struck out one and allowed three runs and two hits during his 2.1 innings. He also set the stage for Algieri to close out the game on the mound, pitching the final inning to cap the state title run and an incredible stretch for the Flucos who’ve gone 38-10 in the last two seasons.


Algieri also voluntarily stepped out of the lineup briefly for another special moment for the Flucos as Drew Pace stepped in to pinch hit. Pace is a senior who has battled through major injuries and health issues but who has been teammates with the core group for the Flucos that won state travel ball championships and got his chance to hit in the top of the seventh inning. He squared up a ball and hit it to right field for a base-hit, eventually scoring the Flucos’ final run when Kevin Ward drew a bases loaded walk.


“Kyle was 100 percent on board, he said ‘yeah, let him hit in my spot,’” Gray said. “He came through — he rocketed that ball into right field, makes me look stupid as a coach for not hitting him all year.”


On a day where a lot of Flucos needed to come up big, seemingly every single one did. Critzer provided his usual power at the plate, including the two-run blast in the third that made it 8-0 Fluvanna and seemed to announce that the first inning and his blast to centerfield the night before was no fluke, that it was all part of the plan.


“That guy shows up and works every single day — I’ll love that guy until the day I die,” Groome said. “He’s a wonderful teammate, he’s the best man and he’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen.”


Critzer, the senior catcher, was also tasked with managing what amounted to a staff day for the Flucos on the mound, keeping Dansey and Negron locked in enough to hold off the Tigers’ array of hitters.


“I knew we needed to pitch backwards to everyone,” Critzer said. “I tried to keep the pitchers calm and using every pitch they’ve got. That’s probably the best game I’ve seen (Dansey) pitch in my life. To come out in the state championship game and pitch like that, that’s a big deal.”


When the game ended, those 19 hits as a team become a little bit of symbolism if you believe in the power of numbers. Mike Sheridan, the Flucos’ former head coach, is often referred to solely as 19 by anyone who grew up in Fluvanna or resides within the county’s borders. His cousin Steve Sheridan, the coach before Mike took over, was 20. That prompted Mike to claim before the game that the win was in the bag because the two numbers combine for 2019.


“Sheridan is my muse, he tells me everything I need to fix because he’s got the advantage of being able to sit back and having been in these shoes for so many damn years,” Gray said. “He helps us get things polished which is huge. Mike and Steve Sheridan, all those guys built this program from the ground up. A lot of hard work went into these kids in summer ball, travel ball and their families. They’re tight knit and it shows.”


Gray is right, they’re tight knit and it shows. But they also prove what being tight-knit can get you. It can end a title drought for a school. It can end a title drought for a program.


Being tight-knit can make you a champion.