James Wood softball tops Millbrook in battle as Baker announces retirement

WINCHESTER — During a post-game ceremony to recognize Todd Baker's coaching retirement on Friday, the eighth-year head coach held a microphone and shared a story with a Ridge Field crowd filled with fans and former players about how Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" became the official song of the James Wood softball team.

The theme of that song — and a close reenactment of the details of that story — played an integral role in making sure Friday's game wasn't Baker's last.

Third-seeded Millbrook had momentum on its side by scoring single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to wipe out a 3-0 deficit. But in the bottom of the sixth, Ellie Johnson's one-out, two-strike squeeze bunt toward third base brought in courtesy runner Emma Lindamood with the game-winning run as No. 2 James Wood won 4-3 in the Class 4 Northwestern District semifinals.

The victory by the Colonels (11-10) ensured that Baker — who is retiring at the end of the season — will get to coach at least two more games.

James Wood will play at No. 1 Fauquier (15-3) — a 6-3 winner over No. 5 Kettle Run in Friday's other semifinal — at 6 p.m. in Tuesday's district championship game, and the Colonels earned their sixth straight region tournament berth with Friday's win. James Wood will travel to the Dulles District No. 1 seed for the Region 4C semifinals on May 31. The Colonels lost 11-10 and 10-0 to Fauquier this year.

James Wood defeated Millbrook 20-9 and 12-2 in their first two meetings. Colonels senior Laken Whipkey said the team knew it would be difficult to beat the Pioneers a third time. For example, Millbrook led that first game 6-1 and trailed only 11-9 before the Colonels scored nine times in the bottom of the sixth inning at Ridge Field on April 1.

But the team's confidence was high before the game, and was still high as the Pioneers chipped away at the Colonels' lead.

"We have a saying called 'RTL.' It's "Refuse To Lose,'" said Whipkey, who pitched a complete game and hit a leadoff double in the sixth to start the winning sequence. "We've just had that the whole time for the postseason. We're so confident."

That attitude is one that Baker has wanted his players to have even before he took over as James Wood's head coach in 2015. While serving as an assistant coach to Ted McDaniel for two years, he explained that after beating Skyline on a squeeze bunt in the bottom of the seventh inning one time, former softball public address announcer Brian Dick fired up "Don't Stop' Believin'" on the sound system as Baker walked to the huddle in right field to celebrate with the players.

"I knew right there that was going to be my song if I ever got this job, and that was going to be James Wood's signature song," Baker told the crowd. "We've played that many, many times here."

Baker said after the ceremony that it meant a great deal to hear it for possibly the final time at Ridge Field. It was made possible by another squeeze play.

Whipkey (two earned runs, seven hits, three walks, four strikeouts in the circle) started the sixth inning off with a leadoff double against Emily Jeffries (complete game, two earned runs, six hits, two walks, three strikeouts) that bounced against the fence in right-center field. Lindamood came in to run for Whipkey at that point.

After a flyout, the righty-hitting Johnson stepped to the plate. With the count 0-1, Johnson swung and missed a high pitch that ticked off the top of the catcher's glove and went to the backstop, allowing Lindamood to go to third.

Even though Johnson had two strikes on her, Baker felt it was the right time for a squeeze, and had confidence Johnson could get the ball down. After two balls, Johnson reached up high for an outside pitch and angled her bat to drop her bunt toward third.

It was perfect. Millbrook couldn't field it cleanly, but the speedy Lindamood was practically at home plate by the time the Pioneers touched the ball. Johnson would have beaten out the bunt for a single even if Millbrook had fielded the ball and thrown to first.

"I was a little nervous," said Johnson with a laugh. "I was just thinking I've got to do this for my team. I've got to get this ball down. No matter what happens, I have to get this down. That's all I was thinking about, and I got it down.

"I knew Emma knew what to do. We've practiced that over and over again. We were ready."

It was the second time in the game James Wood scored a run as a result of a bunt. In James Wood's three-run third inning, Sadie Kittoe bunted toward third with one out. After the ball was fielded and the throw went toward first, Aliza Judd bolted for home to make it 2-0. Judd reached on an error after the throw toward first following her sacrifice bunt was dropped by the second baseman, moved to second on an Izzy McKee (2 for 3) RBI single, and advanced to third on Cadence Rieg's flyout to right. McKee would score on a wild pitch to make it 3-0.

Down 4-3 in the seventh, Millbrook immediately went to work on trying to score in a fourth straight inning, with Paige Flinchum (2 for 3 with a walk and RBI single in the fifth) leading off with a single. Ashlyn Philyaw (1 for 4 with a double) then smashed the fourth pitch she saw, but the ball hopped right to Kittoe at short. She threw to McKee at second, who made an excellent turn and throw to first to retire Philyaw for a double play.

The entire infield came together to celebrate the play. Three pitchers later, Whipkey retired Jeffries on a soft looper that Whipkey only had to move over a few steps to her left to grab for the final out.

Baker certainly liked what he saw from Whipkey, who no-hit Millbrook through three innings and had a chance for four no-hit innings, but an error was made at third on the potential final out. An error at catcher trying to throw behind Kenzie Edwards making her way back to third gave the Pioneers their first run.

"She struggled with the first-pitch strike, but other than that, she kind of commanded the zone and kept them off-balance," Baker said. "That's what she does. That's her game. She's got to hit her spots. She uses the off-speed pitch obviously to keep teams off balance.

"I didn't think she would go seven innings, but she did. We made some big plays toward the end after we made some uncharacteristic errors to lower her pitch count a little bit."

Cather Sydney Orndorff also made a big defensive play, throwing Flinchum out at second trying to steal in the fifth with the score 3-2 Colonels. Kittoe made a nice grab and tag to finish it. Philyaw would double four pitches after Flinchum was thrown out.

Baker said he didn't know if James Wood would be in a position to make it to a regional tournament after a 4-3 loss to Kettle Run on May 3 gave James Wood its fourth straight loss and dropped it to 6-10. But a 15-2 win over Handley two days later kick-started a five-game winning streak.

Baker said he was proud of how his team has performed since, and it meant a lot to him to see about a dozen former players come out to celebrate his retirement. During Friday's ceremony, assistant coaches Patrick Gibson and Steve Hicks sang the praises of Baker, who has a 105-44-1 record in seven seasons (the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19).

A 1986 James Wood graduate, Baker is a three-time Winchester Star Coach of the Year. He guided the Colonels to a school record for wins (16) in his first season in 2015, and he proceeded to match or exceed that total in each of the ensuing four seasons. The 2017 team won 18 games.

"It's unbelievable [to see the turnout]," Baker said. "A lot of these kids are in college or have careers of their own. Just to have them come back to share this moment with us is unbelievable.

"In my little speech there, I said the past and present parents and players is what made this program. And of course, my assistant coaches. I'll put them against anybody. They're the best."

James Wood's players certainly think highly of their coach. Adding to their motivation on Friday was not wanting to see him lose on a night Baker would be honored.

"He's just so positive," Whipkey said. "He never gets down on us."

Baker also praised Millbrook after the game. He was impressed greatly with how Jeffries pitched, and what the Pioneers have done as a whole this season.

Millbrook finished with a winning season this year for the first time since 2014, when the Pioneers went 15-3 and won the district title. Millbrook had a record of 18-81 from 2015-19 before showing progress with last year's 6-7 mark.

"I told them after the game that I don't want this loss to be ingrained in their mind," said first-year coach Carolyn Campbell, whose team graduates Flinchum, Edwards, Philyaw, Breanna Daggett and Jayleen Nunez. "I want everyone to remember the wins we had this season, not this loss.

"The fight, the positivity, the teamwork, the accountabilty [stood out this year]. I hope everyone remembers this 2022 Millbrook team, because we're going to keep going."

Hailey Courtney had an RBI double for Millbrook in the sixth that made it 3-3.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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