AKRON, Ohio — As has been the case over the last four years, it was a splendid season for the Wheelersburg Lady Pirates’ softball program.
A 14-0 SOC II conference record. A 10-0 mercy-rule victory over 16th Region stronghold Russell (Ky.). A torrid playoff run where Wheelersburg outscored its opponents by an astounding 53-2 margin — behind an unbelievable playoff showing from Faith Howard that included a perfect game against South Point and a no-hitter against Piketon — en route to its second consecutive berth in the OHSAA Division III Championship affair. All the definition of an excellent season, indeed.
However, despite giving one of the state’s perennial softball powers its toughest test of the postseason, Wheelersburg ultimately fell one game short of its ultimate goal.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, a walk, a single, a sacrifice bunt, and a wild pitch allowed the Lady Pirates to cut the Warren Champion Lady Flashes lead to a 3-1 mark.
But with two runners in scoring position and two down in the inning, a strikeout ended Wheelersburg’s best chance to put runs up on the board, and Champion, who added two runs in the seventh and final inning, pulled away as the gritty efforts of the Lady Pirates weren’t enough to dethrone the eight-time champs, 5-1, in the Division III State Championship contest on Saturday evening in Akron.
For a group that had their eyes set solely on repeating last year’s magical state championship run in Division III, the loss certainly was a disappointment. However, for a group that went 99-9 and went to three consecutive OHSAA Final Fours, there’s plenty to be proud of.
“It hurts right now and the kids feel like they’ve failed in some way, but I think in due time, they’ll look back and be proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Pirates head coach Teresa Ruby said. “Any given day, anything can happen and it just wasn’t our day today.”
Wheelersburg (25-3) struggled to capture any momentum Saturday as the Pirates found themselves in a 2-0 hole before they had their first at bat of the contest. Offensively, Wheelersburg struggled to create its own momentum, only collecting four hits in the contest.
“Obviously, we played a very talented Champion team,” Ruby said. “I thought we started out a little stiff maybe — maybe a little nervous. We probably took a few too many pitches in the beginning, put ourselves in the hole in the at bats early in the game. Then I think we had opportunities and sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t. We didn’t get the hits when we needed them and they did.”
The Pirates had two extra base hits — a double by Taylor Fannin and a triple by Klaiber, who was playing with a fractured finger suffered in practice earlier in the week.
“We had a tough week this week, not to make any excuses,” Ruby said. “Our third baseman broke her finger — an open fracture — in practice on Tuesday. She had surgery the morning that we left to come here Thursday and she played both games when the doctor told us not to expect her to play. Not only did she play, she had a triple today. I think that speaks a lot to the character of the kids.”
In the sixth inning, however, Wheelersburg found life in the play of upperclassmen Kallie Coleman and Taylor Fannin. Trailing 3-0, Coleman walked to leadoff the inning and advanced to second on a Fannin single. After a sacrifice bunt, both runners advanced 90 feet. With Coleman standing on third, a wild pitch found its way to the back stop, allowing the senior to score — making it a 3-1 game.
The inning-ending strikeout, however, foiled a potentially game-changing inning, and Champion added two more runs in the top of the seventh inning to put the game away.
” … It just wasn’t our day,” Howard said. “Champion’s a great team and so are we. It was a great ball game. If we get key hits and things happen, you never know the outcome, but again, I’m still proud of what we’ve accomplished. I’m proud of these girls.”
The Pirates will lose seven seniors who were one win shy of reaching the century mark in their careers. Coleman, Howard, Klaiber, Amanda Lewis, Taylor McQuay, Brittany Swim, and Sarah Claxon will depart Wheelersburg having won a total of 92 percent of their affairs as Lady Pirates. Coleman (Morehead State), Howard (Northern Kentucky), and Klaiber (Long Island University-Post) are all going to play college softball on full-ride scholarships.
“They’re a group you don’t replace,” Ruby said. “Their legacy, they ended up 99-9 in four seasons and three trips to the state championships. You don’t replace that. It’s more than talent. They are quality young ladies who’ve made an impression of the younger kids, and our organization and our community will reap the benefits for many years to come. So, we will be indebted to them for what they’ve been able to do. I’m very proud of them, not only for what they’ve been able to do on the ball field, but for the character of the people that they are.”
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.