The boys are back: Alexandria Aces set to launch 2023 season, commemorate last year’s title

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The boys are back: Alexandria Aces set to launch 2023 season, commemorate last year’s title
The Alexandria Aces are back to defend their Cal Ripken League championship title. (Photo/Tess Wilhelm)
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By Jim McGrath

Baseball is back in town for the summer and this year the Alexandria Aces will be defending a championship for the first time in their 15-year history.

To recap the historic 2022 season, the Aces won the regular season title in the eight-team Cal Ripken Sr. League Championship. As the top seed, the Aces thwarted the momentum of the Bethesda Big Train squad, which was attempting to win its sixth straight championship. In a best-of-three series, Alexandria took the first two games, giving it a perfect 4-0 playoff record, including the finale, a 5-3 decision at Shirley Povich Field in Montgomery County, Maryland.

In the clinching game, the Aces scored two runs in the top of the ninth and final inning. The Aces’ website, alexandriaaces.org, provided this description of how that championship inning played out: “Dylan Koontz (Campbell) led off the ninth with a walk, advancing to second on CJ Boyd’s (Appalachian State) groundout in the next at-bat. Then, on his steal attempt, the Big Train committed one of their three costly errors on the night. Catcher Baylor Cobb missed the throw to third, bringing Koontz home for the go-ahead run. Moments later, Cade Sullivan (Western Michigan) launched a solo homer.” The dinger was Sullivan’s third of the post-season and served as the insurance run, as Aces all-star Ryan Brown closed out the proceedings with a snappy 1-2-3 up-and- down bottom of the ninth for the save.

Fast forward to 2023, and this summer’s season, which begins next week with a home game against the Silver Spring-Takoma Park T-Bolts on June 5. The nature of summer league baseball allows for only a short warm-up “spring training,” according to Aces coach Chris Berset.

How short?

“We have one practice on the Saturday before the sea- son and then it’s full go from there,” Berset said.

Berset also owns PrimeTime Baseball in Alexandria, and he coached a youth championship game last Saturday as part of his duties there.

“I oversee 20 teams in varying age groups,” Berset said.

His U15 squad won its spring championship last weekend, but now he’s focused back on the college kids. Berset said he’s excited about this year’s configuration of the Alexandria Aces, which includes new players from some of the best college baseball programs in the country, along with a few stalwarts from last year.

“We have a few guys returning in pitchers Reese Crockett (4-0, 1.65 ERA in 2022) and Will Long and infielder Chris Taylor. I’m really liking the makeup of this team,” Berset said. “We have some very talented ball players from Auburn in Alex Wade and Gavin Miller.

“Our Ball State boys will continue to be key components to our lineup in Nick Gregory and Dylan Grego. My young Vanderbilt kids have played on a high stage before and our Campbell hitter Jonah Oster has swung the bat well so far this season,” Berset continued.

The Aces will be pressed to improve on last season’s bestever record of 26-10. But Berset looks forward to the challenge of a new season – against many of the leading college players in the country.

“First and foremost – it’s good competition. We compete against teams that have top players on it,” Berset said.

The Aces are in the Cal Ripken League’s South division along with the Lorton (Metro South County) Braves, the expansion Southern Mary- land Senators and DC Grays. The four Montgomery County teams will comprise the North Division. Along with Bethesda and Silver Spring-Takoma this will include the Gaithersburg Giants and Cropdusters Baseball.

Asked if the pitchers risk developing arm trouble transitioning directly from a 50 to 70 game college season directly to the 36-game Aces schedule, Berset says it’s a matter of adjusting rest time.

“With a ‘shortened’ schedule, top pitchers come to our league so they can have their break in August. Also, the travel is relatively easy. Yes, it is the D.C. traffic you are fighting against, but being home each night is key.”

In other words, there are no overnight road trips. And for the pitching, last season 21 different hurlers saw time for the Aces, with only one topping the 40-inning plateau.

Team president Frank Fannon is more specific about how competing for the Aces in a top-tier summer league helps boost the players’ draft chances.

“Some of our players have excelled recently once they left Alexandria. Blake Burkhalter from Auburn was a second-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2021 and signed for over $800,000. He played for us in 2021,” Fannon, who has been with the team throughout its 15-year existence, said.

Each team is responsible for recruiting its own players, and the Alexandria team is unusual with its international flavor.

“Last year we had two players from China come and Jack Wang pitched for China recently in the World Baseball Classic,” Fannon said.

A key selling point of the Ripken league is that they leave the aluminum bats at home. Part of its stated mission is to promote collegiate wooden bat baseball, giving the league a throwback feel, as virtually all youth league and college programs use aluminum bats.

But for those aspiring to play professional baseball, where wooden bats are used, the experience swinging the lumber is invaluable. A wooden bat league enables hitters to show they can excel without aluminum bats, which are lighter and easier to swing, and likewise allows pitchers to show professional scouts that they can thrive in a professional-style league.

“Helping these boys out while they play is crucial in developing them,” Berset said.

Playing at Frank Mann Field on Commonwealth Avenue, the former home of the Class A Alexandria Dukes back in the 1970’s, also ties the Aces to days of baseball past.

For now, all of the Aces’ collective energy is directed toward the coming season.

“We’re very excited to begin this season,” Berset said. “Coming off a banner season, we should be able to have some great crowds on hand. The momentum of Alexandria is building rapidly so having the boys playing in front of this will be nothing short of sweet!”

The 18-game home schedule will be full of surprises, and each game will be sponsored by a different organization. According to Fannon, for the opener there will be a championship celebration ceremony 15 minutes prior to game time, followed by the first pitch at 6:30. It will be billed as Alexandria Little League Night.

There will be food trucks at all home games, and Fannon emphasized the entertainment bargain which his team presents.

“Admission is still only five dollars, with plenty of free parking,” Fannon said.

The Aces are a 501(c)(3) organization and they are consistently trying to raise money as the cost of uniforms, bats, and balls have all increased. Donations can be made on the team website or checks mailed to Alexandria Aces, P.O. Box 1219, Alexandria, 22313.

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