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By Mike Forster
History is replete with underdogs. And Americans (who, by the way, had their nation founded by a bunch of them) love underdogs.
So, along with all those who faced long odds and earned our admiration, you can include the American Legion Post 217 baseball team.
The crew headed up to the state championship tournament at Leesburg as the longest of longshots, yet they played their hearts out in making it to the tourney's finale. Alas, the Islanders ran out of gas in falling to the highly-favored Albemarle Post 74, also now known as the Virginia state champion.
After its comeback win over Big Island, Albemarle finished the season with a record of 25-0. Hence, the Marles of Albe raised no eyebrows by their run to the title game.
The Islanders, on the other hand, had a week that was nothing less than shocking. For instance, the team didn't even win its district. Heck, it didn't even finish in second place.
The Islanders slipped into the state tourney only because District 10 champ Danville and runner-up Lynchburg couldn't muster the required 12 men for a playoff roster.
Once at the tourney, Big Island promptly lost its first game (to West End).
Facing being sent packing at every turn in the double-elimination tourney, the Islanders were as resilient as mosquitos at the Dracula family reunion.
They were as gritty as a peanut butter sandwich in the Sahara Desert.
They were as tough as a two-dollar steak.
"I feel very blessed to be associated with these young men," said Islander Head Coach Kelley Russell. "This is the best tourney we've ever been in."
It sure didn't start out that way. The Islanders fell behind West End Post 361, 5-0, in the first three innings of play.
Fueled by Quentin Palmer's two-run homer, the Islanders clawed their way back before falling to the Westies, 7-6.
That meant two things. First, the Islanders were now in the losers' bracket. Second, each morning, they'd pack their bags and leave their accommodations at the Leesburg Best Western, not knowing whether they might return.
But the team gave the hotel's front desk a workout, returning to check back in on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
They did so as they rang up four consecutive wins, topping Roanoke, Stafford, Leesburg and (in a revenge win) West End.
Everyone on Russell's roster contributed in some way. Zach Duff went six-for-seven in an 11-inning win over Roanoke. Tre Allison went nine innings in that game. Garrett Price closed out the win over Roanoke, before getting the win in a 4-2 victory over Stafford.
Taylor Bell replicated that feat, earning the save against Stafford before throwing six strong innings in the 8-7 win over Leesburg.
Stephen Hueber pitched in two games, as well, going into the sixth inning in the title game. Hunter Johnson belted a three-run homer in that same game.
J.P. Padgett may have provided the nicest surprise. Chased early by Lynchburg in his most recent start, the Liberty rising senior was spectacular against West End.
He started and picked up the win holding the Westies to a single run, as Big Island racked up eight to earn its way into the finals.
Padgett allowed just seven hits in allowing Big Island a measure of revenge over the crew that sent them to the losers' bracket. "That's something he'll remember the rest of his life," said Russell of Padgett's clutch performance on the mound.
Big Island actually held a 5-2 lead over Albemarle heading into the last inning.
But the Albe-Marlins rang up three runs to tie it before putting up five in the tenth inning to ice the title.
"We needed three outs in the top of the ninth, but we ran out of gas," said Russell.
Nobody can blame the team for having an empty tank. They'd played six games in four days. Three of those games went into extra innings.
Russell fairly used up his inventory of arms and, had they taken the win over Albemarle, they still had to beat that same foe again.
Keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, a win over Albemarle would have been the first by any foe over that highly regarded crew.
"You don't get a lot of second chances in life," said Russell, whose team ended this season with a total mark of 12-11. "After dealing with vacations and injuries, it was very pleasing to see [my team] play with such enthusiasm.
"It renewed my faith in a lot of things."
While Russell lamented the fact that he'll lose a ton of leadership and talent this year (in the form of Cameron Byrd, Keyton Elliott, Zach Coleman, Cal Hodgert and Palmer), he should have quite the team next season.
More importantly, "It's nice for the guys to go out on a high note," he said. Compared with how everyone thought things had come to a close two weeks ago, "This is a huge difference in how the season ended.
"We played with a lot of emotion. The ol' Mojo was back. They stayed fired up: They were on a mission."
Indeed, a nearly impossible mission that was almost accomplished.