Maybe the Washington Nationals should take note.
Playing in the spring training location of their hometown Major League Baseball club, the 15-and-Under Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League (NVTBL) Stars did what the Nats can’t yet do: win a championship.
In the 20 years that the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) has held a 15U baseball national tournament, no squad from the Potomac Valley ever came home with the top prize. That all changed in late July when the Stars came away from Viera, Fla. undefeated and relatively unchallenged, going 6-0 throughout the tournament and winning by an aggregate run margin of 59-10.
Comprised primarily of players from Fairfax County, the Stars used a four-run fifth inning to blow open a tied contest in the championship game, riding a complete-game effort from starter Mitch Mackeith (Marshall High) to win the title 5-1 over the Goose Creek (S.C.) Diamondbacks.
“It was amazing to win,” said Stephen Lubnow, a rising sophomore at George Mason High School. “It was what we’ve been working for the whole year so it was incredible. From the first practice … it was our purpose to get better and better [and] it was our goal to win the national championship.”
After going 4-0 in pool play, the Stars received an automatic bid into the tournament’s semifinals. There, they encountered their stiffest test of the tournament against the Connecticut Capitals.
The Stars got down 1-0 early in the game but rallied back, earning a 7-2 victory and subsequently a spot in the national championship. J.J. Sarty (Loudoun Valley), the lone Loudoun County-based player on the team, led the offense with four hits.
In their four pool play games, the Stars rolled over the opposition, putting up a combined 47 runs while yielding only six. The squad kicked the tournament off in style, blasting Legends Baseball (Mass.) 13-1. Bryan Drager (Westfield) earned the complete-game victory on the mound while Wilfredo Corps-Ortiz (South Lakes) and Josh Sborz (McLean) each tacked on three hits.
“Wilfredo played amazing the whole tournament,” Lubnow said. “As our leadoff hitter, he hit the ball so well every time and was on base almost every time. We had a lot of individual efforts but as a team, everyone contributed.”
The Capitals fell victim to stellar pitching from Sborz and Mackeith in the next contest, losing 5-2. Westfield hurler Kyle Corwin went the distance in the Stars’ third game, pummeling the Brandon (Fla.) Extreme 11-2 behind three stolen bases from Marshalls’ Mitch Ardinger. The Stars rounded out pool play with a slaughter-rule victory over the South Shore Spartans, 18-1.
“We knew we were one of the top teams in there, but we played outstanding the whole week and it showed against some of the weaker teams,” Lubnow said.
Following the championship, five members of the Stars were named to the All-Tournament Team, the most of any squad participating. Sarty, Sborz, Mackeith and Corps-Ortiz joined Johnny Graham (James Madison) as the Stars’ top honorees.
With a methodical approach to baseball, Coach Rob Hahne directed the Stars to their glory. Even in local, Northern Virginia games, Hahne would have his bench players fill out pitching and hitting charts, beating into the Stars’ heads the concepts of first-pitch strikes and quality at bats. Once they got to Florida, playing baseball came easy.
All of this was aided by an off-the-field chemistry atypical of teams comprised of players from different schools throughout the region.
“The majority of us have been playing for the last three years,” Lubnow said. “It’s by far the best team I’ve ever played on. When we were down in Florida, we hung out together and even played poker almost every night.”
Even so, the reality of becoming the first area team to win a national championship is slowly sinking in.
“Everyone was in disbelief [after we won], because for a lot of the kids this is our third national championship [appearance] and we’ve wanted it for so long,” Lubnow said. “We all ran into the middle of the field. It was pretty incredible. People who we don’t even know are congratulating us.”
The success for the Stars seems to exist program-wide. The 14U NVTBL Stars placed third in the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Nationals, finishing at 6-1-1. They also finished second in the Battle in the South tournament, beating five teams by slaughter rule including the Dbat Blue Team, the No. 1-ranked squad by USSSA.
Additionally, the other 15U Stars-White squad scored a top-six finish at the Perfect Game tournament in Ft. Myers, Fla. There, the Stars beat the number-one ranked team in which Max Kaplow, a rising sophomore at George Mason and a second-team All-Bull Run District outfield selection in the spring, hurled the complete game victory.