Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
This past weekend was a momentous one for the Alexandria Aces, who won the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League title for the first time in the team’s 14-year history.
The Aces, a summer baseball team for college players, defeated Bethesda Big Train 5-3 on Saturday at Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda to claim the championship.
According to Aces Coach Chris Berset, what began as a mission to just develop as a team and enjoy the summer slowly evolved into palpable excitement surrounding the possibility, and subsequent reality, of a league championship.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Berset said. “The team we beat, Bethesda Big Train, is a very, very good team over there. … We were able to come together as a team and just kind of outworked them just a little bit at the end. It’s a really, really cool feeling for the boys and the city and everyone involved with the organization.”
Their victory was earned the hard way, as they had to beat the league’s behemoth for the title; Bethesda had won the league championship the past five years in a row and six of the last seven. Last season was the Aces’ first appearance in the championship series, but they lost two in a row to Bethesda.
The tables turned this season, with the Aces sweeping Bethesda two games to none. The Aces were hot heading into this year’s playoffs, having won their last seven regular season games in a row to finish at 26-10 – the exact same record as Bethesda. But since the Aces won four of the six games against Bethesda, they were deemed the number one seed going into the playoffs, with Bethesda the second seed.
During the first round of playoffs the Aces swept the South County Braves, winning two games straight and landing a spot in the championship series.
Because the Aces were the top seed, they hosted the first championship game on July 29, beating Bethesda 8-6.
The next day they traveled to Bethesda for the final game, which according to Frank Fannon, majority owner and former Alexandria City Councilor, included approximately 900 attendees – about 150 of which were Aces fans.
The game itself was something of a ping pong match, as the Aces took a 1-0 lead, then Bethesda scored twice to go ahead 2-1. By the top of the ninth inning, the teams were tied 3-3.
The Aces manufactured the winning run in the ninth inning. Dylan Koontz, a rising sophomore from Campbell University, reached base on a walk. He took second on a sacrifice bunt by C.J. Boyd, from Appalachian State University.
Koontz scored after Bethesda’s catcher made an errant throw to third base when Koontz attempted to steal. The throw sailed into left field, allowing Koontz to race home to give the Aces a 4-3 lead.
Moments later, Cade Sullivan, from Western Michigan University, hit a home run and extended the lead to 5-3. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Aces brought out closer Ryan Brown from Ball State University, who finished the game with a three-up-three-down inning, cementing the Aces’ historic win.
“We poured out onto the field. We celebrated … and we stayed out on the field for about 30 minutes and we just celebrated in Bethesda,” Fannon said.
Koontz said scoring the winning run brough as much exhilaration for him as it did for fans and his fellow teammates.
“It was awesome. I got to third, and I don’t have a lot of stolen bases, so I got to third and was already very excited,” Koontz said. “I was running home and Berset was jumping up and down and the guys were screaming and yelling. It was very fun and I was very excited when I got to home plate.”
After the win, team members convened to say their goodbyes and take photos with the trophies. Some went out afterward, but others had to prepare for a long trek home, as many of the players are from out of state.
“I’ll be staying in touch with almost all of them probably for the rest of my life,” Koontz said.
Fannon, who had been on the team’s board since 2008 and took over as majority owner several years ago, said much of the credit goes to Berset, calling him “such a leader among men.” Berset, who is in his fourth season as the Aces coach, used to play professional baseball and before that college ball at the University of Michigan. He owns Prime Time Baseball, a baseball training academy in Alexandria.
Although the Aces have had talented rosters in the past, Berset attributed the team’s success to an even-keeled determination among the players.
“We just had the right mix of experience, leadership and talented ball players,” Berset said. “My leaders didn’t get up too much when it was going well, and they didn’t get too low when [we lost]. … We were able to reel off 11 wins in a row at the back end of the season and it’s a testament to them. We had different guys stepping up every single day and it was just an absolute joy to come to the ballpark to work with these young men.”
Compared to Bethesda, the Alexandria Aces’ roster doesn’t include players from nearly as many big-name schools, which Fannon said only adds to the sweetness of their triumph.
“They might have had better individual players, but we had the better team,” Fannon said. “It was just amazing, the unity that they had. … These guys were all based on what’s best for the team. They put their own egos and attitude aside to do what was best for the team.”
With the 2022 season in the rearview mirror, the goal for next year includes improving seating and amenities at the stadium in order to create a better experience for Aces fans and hopefully draw bigger crowds, Fannon said.
But the Aces’ most important goal is to continue fostering an opportunity to make memories and come together over a shared love for baseball.
“Most of these players will never see each other again, but they’ll never forget the 55 days they spent together in the summer of 2022 on a championship team in Alexandria, Virginia,” Fannon said.