By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It’s hard to beat an inside-the-park home run for baseball tournament excitement, but the Richlands Blue Tornado found a way to heighten the thrills and the suspense in the final game of the 40th annual Coppinger invitational tournament on a rainy Saturday evening at Bowen Field.
The Blue Tornado retook the lead with two runs in the final inning, then held off defending Coppinger champ Princeton, which had the potential tying run on second base in the bottom of the seventh.
Richlands took a 4-3 victory to secure its fourth Coppinger championship and third in the past six years.
Michael Horton, who drove in the go-ahead runs with a double, said the signature win had implications beyond the prestige of the prep baseball tournament championship.
“It means a lot,” he said. “More than the title and the championship, it helps the team out with confidence which we’ll need for the rest of the season.”
Richlands has been fighting the perception that their 1-4 start indicated a dropoff from the competitive teams fielded in recent years by former coach Brad Strong.
The current players and coaches have taken pains to explain that the start of their season included a tough “murderer’s row” of opponents.
Michaels said, “We just had to show our ability. People don’t know that’s the kind of team we are. We’re a whole lot better team than we started out. It’s coming together. We’ll show them. ... We played good in this tournament.”
The Coppinger championship win lifted the Blues into winning territory (5-4) for the first time in 2013.
That would not have been possible without Chad Lester’s heroics in Richlands’ semifinal with Fayetteville that preceded the title game.
Lester’s blast with one out in the fifth inning carried to the warning track in deep center at the minor-league ballpark, where the Pirates’ Brian Gore jumped high to attempt a catch — and fell without the ball.
The relay throw was cut off as Lester dashed across the plate to complete his speedy circuit of all four corners, and he headed for a joyful dugout.
Lester was later named most valuable player of the 2013 tourney.
The Richlands defense sat down the last six Fayetteville batters in order to claim a 6-5 win and a spot in the championship.
Princeton pitcher Bo Williams came out hot in the finale, throwing a no-hitter with five strikeouts until Horton lofted a soft single into right field in the fourth. Williams ended with 11 strikeouts.
Richlands pitcher River Michaels encountered some rough spots in the middle innings and left the game after five, with the score tied 2-2.
Michaels said, “You’ve just got to brush your shoulder off on that. I mean, they’re going to hit, they’re going to miss. You’ve just got to brush it off and keep going — keep going strong.”
Richlands head coach Adam Davis said, “He’s pitched some big games for us lately and he’s just done a wonderful job. He didn’t get the win, but that doesn’t indicate how well he pitched.”
Andy Guerriero picked up the pitching win with two innings of relief work. He walked the first batter he faced, Will Hickman, who came home on a sacrifice fly to give Princeton a 3-2 lead after six innings.
But in Richlands’ half of the final frame, Jonathan Cochran and Chase Ray drew walks off Williams, and Horton brought them home for the game’s final runs.
Michaels said about the seventh inning, “We had a lot of adversity and we never gave up. We’re a no-quitter team. It’s just flat-out, with us. No end until victory.”
The two teams will test that premise when they play again on Wednesday at Richlands’ home field on the Southwest Virginia Community College campus.
— Contact Tom Bone at