Team-oriented Royals parlayed years on the field together into program’s first state championship

COLONIAL HEIGHTS - It’s a senior class that, together, saw and made history over the past three years at Prince George.

As sophomores, their Royals won 20 games, which was then a program record.

As juniors, they all contributed to Prince George Baseball’s first regional championship, and also to the team’s 2017 state semifinals appearance.

And now, seniors and longtime teammates Hunter Carden, Shane Cooper, Brandon Hatcher, Evan Kozen, Mike Peterson, Tevin Tucker and Jonathan Walton are concluding their high school careers as state champions.

“You can’t describe it,” Peterson said. “I still don’t think that it’s sunk in all the way yet.”

Their journey to the state title can be traced back to the first time that Walton, Tucker and Cooper became travel ball teammates around the age of 8. Walton and Tucker, both smiling when they described it, remembered how, at 8U tryouts, Cooper showed up with an earring in his left ear.

“Everybody was astounded by it,” Walton said.

“Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that,” Cooper said smiling.

As for Peterson’s first memory of his teammates...

 

“Johnny dancing,” he said, drawing chuckles from his fellow seniors.

After Kozen moved to Prince George and joined the team in ninth grade, all of the players were in place. From there, they began forging the bond that would lead to last Saturday’s joyous celebration on the baseball field at Deep Run High School.

“Come this year...everything was just smooth in the field, at school,” Cooper said. “Everything worked out.”

“I thought we played together well, together as a team, and that helped us win baseball games,” Carden said.

“Just all of us being around each other, we just kind of all bonded and we started being like brothers,” Tucker said, “so we could just take the criticism and just improve our game.”

“We had gotten to the point where we can hold each other accountable - everybody can say something to everybody without us bickering,” Peterson said. “We can all build on each other.”

“I think having that brotherly relationship, we all had that point where we could have expectations of one another and knew what each other had to do in certain situations,” Walton said.

 

Talent and success were everywhere this year. From Kozen to junior Justin Starke to sophomore Jacob Farrar, the Royals’ bats could launch the ball in both big and small ways to plate the runners. Sippio, Tucker and Peterson were baserunning magicians, transforming walks and hits into stolen bases and runs scored. And Hatcher, Cooper and young Nicholas Sober brought the fire in the bottom of the lineup, batting home their fellow teammates to make the entire batting rotation a scoring machine.

But the ingredients to making that talent shine and making that success real, the players pointed out, boiled down to working hard in practice, and also to having confidence in one other.

“Every day was quality,” Peterson added. “A quality day everyday.”

“Everybody had a job to do,” Walton said, “and everybody knew what their job was.”

State championship winning pitcher Buck Forbes, semifinal-securing Walton, lefty Carden and utility standout Cooper led a lockdown pitching staff.

The key to their success? The same as it’s been over the past several seasons: throw strikes and let the defense work.

“Throw strikes, let ’em hit the ball,” Cooper said, “and trust the guys behind you.”

 

“I think all our pitchers knew if they just throw strikes, if the other team put the ball in play, we had a good defense and they’ll make the plays,” Tucker said. “Just about throwing strikes, no free passes - like Shane said, just trusting your defense.”

As they built upon two historical seasons in 2016 and 2017, the Royals won two classics on their way to the Class 5 title.

There was the state semifinal matchup against Deep Run. The Royals had lost to the Wildcats in the regional championship game, but had already qualified for the state tournament via their win over Atlee.

Prince George would meet Deep Run again after trouncing Menchville 8-1 in the state quarterfinals - and then outlasted the Wildcats 7-3 to reach the state final.

And Walton fondly recalled Kozen’s walk-off hit in the bottom of the seventh inning at the regional semifinals that not only enabled the Royals to avenge their season-opening loss to Atlee, but also lifted the Royals into the state tournament.

“Evan’s walk-off hit against Atlee was probably one of the most exciting moments of the season,” Walton said. “Definitely all of us worked really hard in that game, and Evan just finished it off.”

And then, with a dominant shutout of Potomac Senior, the Royals’ Class of 2018 baseball players helped hoist the Class 5 state baseball trophy. They closed their final season with a history making ending: Prince George Baseball’s first ever state championship.

 

“It was great, and we’re state champs, baby!” Tucker said with a big smile. “Put us in the history books!”

“All the way at the beginning of the year, Tevin was like, ‘We’re gonna be state champs,’” Cooper said. ”‘Put in the work and get it.’”

“Since my freshman year...every year we’ve gotten better,” Kozen said, “and this year we finally came all the way through.”

Nick Vandeloecht may be reached at nvandeloecht@progress-index.com, 804-722-5151 or @NickVanDelPI on Twitter.