A year ago, Briar Woods ended Potomac’s season in the region semifinals 8-1 behind the stellar pitching of then-junior Wilson Ayers.
On Tuesday, the host Panthers faced the left-hander again in the 5A state quarterfinals. But this time the outcome was different.
Starter Brody Mack threw 6.2 strong innings and Potomac scored one run in the bottom of the fifth and added two more in the sixth to beat the Falcons 3-1 and advance to its second state semifinal in three years. The Panthers (21-4) play Freedom-South Riding Friday at Glen Allen High School at 2 p.m.
“This is a gritty group of kids,” Panther head coach Mike Covington said. “We’re smaller than everybody. But we’re athletic.”
Although he showed signs of fatigue, Mack knew going into Tuesday he’d have to pitch deep into the game. Potomac’s No. 1 starter and the 5A Region D Player of the Year struck out four and allowed one earned run in the top of the seventh before Josue Cumba came in and got the final out in relief to secure the victory.
“[Brody] just battled,” Covington said. “He wasn’t as sharp. He’s tired. We rode him like a horse.”
Ayers, who threw a five-hitter last season against Potomac, was strong again Tuesday. The Navy commitment held the Panthers scoreless through the first four innings and finished with eight strikeouts in 5.1 innings.
In the fifth, though, Potomac finally broke through. Brandon Cleveland got things started when he hit a ball on a 2-2 count with one out toward the fence in left. The outfielder jumped up for the ball, but failed to catch it after colliding with the fence.
With Cleveland on second, Julian Cumba hit the ball to the shortstop. The shortstop considered throwing to third to get Cleveland out before turning and firing to first. But he overthrew the first baseman. Cleveland kept running to score the game’s first run.
Potomac almost scored again in the fifth, but Cumba was called out following a collision at the plate. The all-region infielder was then ejected from the game by the home-plate umpire for pushing Briar Woods’ catcher.
Cumba’s loss forced Covington to juggle his lineup. Matt Celio, who usually plays in the outfield, replaced Cumba at second base.
“That put a wrench in things,” Covington said. “We’re having to do something we don’t practice.”
Potomac added two more runs in the bottom of the third from Rishabh Maurya and Celio.
Mack said the team’s attitude is different as the Panthers look to capture the program’s first state title since 1988,
“Every game we’re treating like we’re playing for a state title,” Mack said.