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ALL-AREA BASEBALL: No doubts in Bears’ Byrd

There’s a mental toughness shared by high school football quarterbacks and baseball pitchers.

Coaches often refer to it as a bulldog mentality. It requires good decision-making and strong leadership skills. And it takes a special type of player, one who can handle the pressure of being in the spotlight, win or lose.

Riverbend’s Eric Byrd is one of those special players. Besides being the Bears’ starting quarterback last fall, he was their ace on the mound this spring.

After showcasing his versatility last season, the 6-foot-4 right-hander made his senior year a memorable one. He posted a 6–1 record with a 1.09 ERA and batted .362 to help power Riverbend to its second-straight regional playoff appearance.

The Bears’ season ended with a loss to state semifinalist Cosby, but Byrd’s role in it was huge. He was voted to the all-Conference 4 and all-Region 6A South teams, and is the Free Lance–Star’s All-Area Player of the Year.

“Eric was a big part of our success,” Riverbend coach Tim Stimmell said. “We struggled through some emotions in the middle of the season, but Eric and these guys found a way to make it happen.”

Byrd was a big catalyst in the turnaround, which began to take shape late in the regular season and culminated in an emotional win over Colonial Forge in the conference semifinals. He tossed a four-hitter and contributed three hits to the 5–1 victory.

“Nothing was bigger for us than that win,” Stimmell said. “Lose and the season is over; win and we go to the region and conference championship. Eric battled and threw pitches in spots where people couldn’t hit them. It was a gutty performance.”

The day before, Byrd delivered the biggest hit of the season in a 4–2 rain-delayed quarterfinal win over Woodbridge. His fifth-inning triple plated Marco Ramos and Anthony Burke to rally the Bears from a 2–1 deficit.

“Scoring those runs really got the adrenalin flowing for us,” Byrd said. “I think it carried over to the Forge game. We were really pumped up.”

Getting “pumped up” about playing baseball is something the adopted son of former Massaponax boys basketball coach and current Spotsylvania Middle School principal Lane Byrd has done nearly all his life.

“My dad and I have talked about the similarities of being a quarterback and a pitcher,” said Eric. “We call it ‘wanting the ball,’ and you have to be willing to step up on nearly every play. I love those situations. It’s always been my mentality.”

Colonial Forge coach Shawn Szakelhydi witnessed that mentality when Byrd was a 10-year-old student in his hitting camps, and then later as an impact player at Riverbend.

“He was real competitive and you could see his skill set and confidence improve,” said Szakelhydi. “He was a heck of a player as a young man and obviously that carried over into a really good high school career.”

Though he liked playing football and basketball, baseball became a passion for Byrd early. Lane Byrd recognized that passion in his son and did his best to make sure Eric got the benefit of experienced teachers.

Besides Szakelhydi, Eric learned about the mechanics of hitting and pitching from knowledgeable instructors like former Spotsylvania coach Brad Kocher and former Courtland standout Jeff Petty.

“Baseball seemed to be his thing from an early age,” Lane Byrd said. “He was a real natural throwing the ball or swinging the bat. I haven’t seen too many kids with that kind of natural ability.”

As a sophomore, Byrd won four games and then had a breakout season as a junior, earning second-team all-state recognition as a utility player.

This year, he became Stimmell’s go-to pitcher, as well as one of his most reliable hitters. He struck out 58 and played six different positions. Among his victories was a one-hitter over Gar–Field. But his clutch performances in the playoffs were what really defined his senior season.

“Eric is about as softhearted a person as you could ever meet,” Stimmell said. “But he can definitely turn the intensity switch on when it’s game time. He’s really left his mark on the program.”

Byrd will attend VMI on a baseball scholarship, but says he would also consider playing football if the opportunity arises.

“There’s a chance I could play football as a walk-on,” said Byrd, who has increased his weight to 205 pounds this year. “I don’t want to look back in 10 years and wish I had taken advantage of the opportunity. If it’s there and it’s right, I’ll definitely consider it.”

Regardless of which path he takes, Byrd will always cherish the memories of his time at Riverbend.

“There’s a lot of memories that stick out,” he said. “But I think the best ones are the friendships and leadership skills I’ve gotten from playing baseball. Playing at Riverbend was an awesome experience.”

 

Steve Franzello: 540/374-5440

sfranzello@freelancestar.com

 

 

SPRING ALL-AREA

This week, The Free Lance–Star unveils its spring All-Area high school sports team. Here is the schedule:

Monday: Tennis

Tuesday: Lacrosse

Wednesday: Track and field

Thursday: Softball

Today: Baseball

Saturday: Girls soccer

Sunday: Boys soccer

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