Throughout the course of the past 25 years, the Wheelersburg Pirates have always had a successful softball program that has proven itself amongst its fellow regional foes in Division III.
However, it took a special group of seniors — led by Division I signees Kalle Coleman and Faith Howard — to push Wheelersburg over the top amongst its state brethren.
The duo, who proved to be two of the most consistent mainstays across any lineup from not only a regional realm, but a state realm as well, were rewarded for their stellar play last month, as the pair officially capped off their careers in style with Howard and Coleman obtaining First-Team and Second-Team All-State accolades, respectively, for their play during the 2017 season.
For Howard and Coleman, however, the special atmosphere that the Wheelersburg softball program has established is, according to the duo, what allowed them to star as high school athletes.
“Not very many high school athletes get the opportunity to make it to Akron and the OHSAA Final Four three years in a row,” Coleman said. “It feels amazing to have had such a successful high school career. I feel so lucky and blessed to have had the best coaches and teammates. We bought into (Teresa) Ruby’s plan when I was a freshman, and it has led to a lot of success for us.”
“The success that we were able to have during our time at Wheelersburg means everything to me,” Howard said. “It’s the best feeling being able to accomplish so much with the girls that taught me to love the game. (Teresa) Ruby and the rest of the coaching staff make the atmosphere around the program so energetic and exciting, it makes you want to perform to the best of your ability. When you have teammates and coaches around you that genuinely care for one another, it creates a high level of chemistry that drives the program toward success.”
Coleman and Howard, however, were right at the center of that perfect storm that commenced in the middle months of 2013, when Ruby departed Portsmouth to take over the head coaching position at Wheelersburg.
The pair, who served as four-year and three-year starters as the team’s second baseman/leadoff hitter and circle ace, respectively, were critical cogs in Teresa Ruby’s first four seasons as the head coach of the Lady Pirates’ softball program, as the duo collected an overall mark of 99-9 and took home four consecutive SOC II and Division III District titles, along with three consecutive OHSAA State Final Four appearances, a 2016 OHSAA Division III State Championship, and runner-up honors in Division III this past season.
Howard, who took over starting duties in the circle as a sophomore, proved herself as one of — if not the — greatest softball pitching talent to come out of Wheelersburg High School.
Need proof? Look no further than the postseason, where the senior shutout the Lady Pirates’ opponent in 14 of her 20 postseason appearances as a starter — an astounding ratio of 70 percent. And in the six affairs where Howard actually was touchable, the senior allowed more than one run only three times in those six contests.
In all, the Northern Kentucky signee allowed just 21 runs in 20 postseason affairs. When one takes away the outlier that was Bloom-Carroll back in 2015, the ratio looks even more astonishing — just 11 runs over 19 Division III postseason contests, which is just .58 runs per affair.
“It was an honor to have a pitcher like Faith throughout my high school softball career,” Coleman said. “Her nasty changeup made things a lot easier for me in the field. She is not only my teammate, but my best friend, so we could always hold each other accountable for each other’s mistakes. We always put in extra work together on the same travel ball team in the summer and fall of every year ever since I can remember. We’ve just always had really special camaraderie.”
But Howard says that a tight-knit team, along with a tight-knit community, were among the major ingredients that allowed the senior to be successful on the mound.
“The Wheelersburg family is a very special thing to be a part of,” Howard said. “Community support has been amazing my entire life. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scrimmage or a state championship, Pirate Country will come ready to cheer on its teams. This kind of support is something that makes you feel proud to be a part of not only Wheelersburg, but the surrounding communities as well.”
As for Coleman, the middle infielder — who obtained Division III All-State honors for the third consecutive year in a row — proved to be a standout no matter the sport. In addition to her softball exploits, Coleman obtained Special Mention All-Southeast District honors in 2016 and 2017, while averaging 8.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 steals, and 2.9 assists per game for a unit that won more than 70 percent of its affairs in 2017.
“Kalle is definitely one heck of a softball player and an athlete, in general,” Howard said. “She has an unbelievable work ethic and is always striving to get better. These are things that many want to do, but few actually put in the time to achieve.”
It certainly helped that the pair were a part of a seven-person senior class that each brought their own unique set of qualities to the table. Kasey Bergan was a sound catcher who, as the team’s No. 3-hole hitter, hit for a strong average. Brittany Swim, Christen Risner, and Taylor McQuay brought strong gloves and timely hitting to the table. And Amanda Lewis was an unselfish player who brought a strong leadership perspective to the table despite not seeing a great deal of playing time.
“Our seniors had so much togetherness,” Coleman said. “We trusted each other and knew each other so well. Everyone played their role to contribute to the success of the team, and that’s what it takes to be a successful program. We have been winning championships together, at Wheelersburg, since 7-8 year old all-stars. We’ve always held ourselves to high standards.”
“Our senior class was a very close group of girls,” Howard said. “Many of us have played together since we were in 7-8’s. We grew up together and have spent countless hours at the ball field with one another. Each game we played together in 2017 was so special because it was the end of something that had been our childhood. Coach got the seven seniors a bracelet before the season started that said, ‘Class of 2017, finish our legacy,’ and that really stuck with us. This senior class was able to accomplish a lot during our time at Wheelersburg and there isn’t another group of girls that I would’ve rather gone through it all with.”
That group, however, got a great gift when Ruby, who had won two state championships (1980, 1981) under Carol Vice’s direction at Clay and led the Lady Panthers to the OHSAA State Final Four as a coach in 2007, made the move to Wheelersburg after spending a year at Portsmouth. With motivated parties on both sides of the coin, the result was a match made in heaven.
“She’s the best coach that I have ever had the privilege to play for,” Howard said of Ruby. “She’s tough, she knows the game, and she cares about her players. She cares about how they perform during a game, but she also cares about the type of people that they are off of the diamond. She is everything that you want out of a head coach, which is a leader to push you to be your best because of the potential that she sees in not only yourself, but the program. I wouldn’t have been able to reach the level of success that I have had without her.”
“She’s a proven winner,” Coleman said. “Coming in as a freshman with a new coach, I didn’t really know what to expect at first. The only thing that I knew about Coach Ruby was that she had won a couple of state championships at Clay and was successful at the collegiate level, so I knew that she’d instill the mental toughness and work ethic that it takes to win and be a state championship contender year after year. She has been so influental to me, not only as a coach, but as a friend and as a mentor off of the field as well. We definitely have the best coach in the State of Ohio.”
With a 99-9 record, four consecutive district titles and regional appearances, and three consecutive Division III Regional Championships and OHSAA State Final Four berths, there are very few individuals who could question that reasoning. The pinnacle for Coleman and Howard, obviously, was the 2016 OHSAA Division III State Championship, where the Lady Pirates outscored their opponents by a 49-5 count to take home the school’s first-ever state title in the sport.
Even though the pair weren’t able to repeat in 2017, there was certainly no shame in the loss — especially considering the fact that Warren Champion, who defeated Wheelersburg by a 5-1 count this past season, had won six state titles even before its 2017 victory in the Division III State Championship.
“Winning the state championship in 2016 was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” Howard said. “Getting to return this past year was also incredibly exciting. Of course, falling short of the goal is a disappointment, but I always try to use every opportunity, both good and bad, to better myself as a player and as a person.”
“Every high school athlete’s ultimate goal is to win a state championship with their team,” Coleman said. “We knew what to expect from making it to the OHSAA Final Four in 2015, so we set a goal for the next year and got us a ring. There are so many great players who have never won a championship, so winning one meant everything to me. This year, we had to defend our title, so that was some added pressure on us. We feel short, but we have nothing to hang our heads about. Four straight SOC II, sectional, and district championships, three straight regional championships, and three straight Final Four appearances with a state title and a runner-up trophy are all accomplishments that I am extremely proud of.”
Not surprisingly, the pair’s penchant for winning has allowed Coleman and Howard to obtain opportunities to play at the next level. By signing with Morehead State and Northern Kentucky, the duo became the second and third players to sign with a Division I softball program in just the last two seasons, joining current Louisiana State University student-athlete Michal Cunningham.
However, the honor of playing NCAA Division I softball is well-deserved — especially for two of the most talented, and more importantly, unselfish athletes that one will ever find.
“Only 1.6 percent of girls across the country in our graduating class that play softball get the opportunity to do the same at the NCAA Division I level after graduation,” Howard said. “To be a part of that 1.6 percent is an amazing feeling. Knowing that all of the countless hours that you have spent practicing have finally paid off makes it all worth it. I couldn’t be more excited to be continuing my softball career at Northern Kentucky University in the fall.”
“Playing softball in college has always been one of my biggest dreams,” Coleman said. “Through hard work and dedication, I get the opportunity to go to college and get my education for free while continuing to play the sport that I love at the collegiate level. Faith and I are working out really hard every night and playing in travel ball tournaments every weekend in order to prepare us for the next level. I hope that I am able to go to Morehead State in the fall and make an impact as a freshman. I’m really excited for the challenge and am ready to give it everything that I have.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7