Winning championships just doesn’t come naturally.
Just like anything else, it takes years of hard work and dedication in order to become a state champion or a bonafide standout in anything that a person pursues.
Long before their days of winning championships within the Wheelersburg High School softball program began, Wheelersburg standouts Kalle Coleman, Faith Howard, Michal Cunningham, and Laiken Salyers were starring inside the Pirates’ feeder softball program, where the quartet, along with Abbi Sparks and Hailee Barbarits, continued to establish Wheelersburg’s longstanding tradition of producing standout baseball and softball players by perfecting their games — and taking home various titles as a result — across the Little League All Star realm.
And as one can see, all six athletes were pretty successful throughout the rest of their days as high school athletes. Four straight Division III District Championships and four straight regional appearances, along with three OHSAA Final Four appearances and a state title in the Division III realm, have shown the dedication of Sparks and Barbarits, who began the run, and Coleman, Cunningham, Howard, and Salyers, who continued it with a state title in 2016 and a runner-up finish off the backs of Coleman and Howard in 2017.
But as successful as those six, along with many others, were as Little Leaguers and high school student-athletes, there is another set of Wheelersburg standouts who could be as good, if not even better, than their predecessors were as high school athletes.
Need proof? Well, it’s in the pudding. The Wheelersburg 9-10 and 11-12 year-old All-Star softball units both won state championships this year to continue the outstanding tradition that has been set over the years by the young Lady Pirates.
So how does this locomotive keep on rolling, year after year after year?
According to 11-12 year-old coach Dusty Salyers and 9-10 year-old coach Jason Smith, it’s all about knowing what meeting those expectations — as individuals, as team members, and as community members — does for each of the girls going forward.
“The players before the last few years have set the tone,” Salyers said. “It’s not really pressure for these girls, but it’s known that the expectations are there for the girls to not only keep up with, but exceed, what the girls and the teams that came before them did. Success breeds success, and that’s what we’re seeing here.”
“We’re just blessed to have a great community that supports these teams,” Smith said. “The support of the entire Wheelersburg community is a big reason why each of the units have been, and are, a success.”
When one takes a look at each of these units, however, one can tell that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
That’s especially the case on the 11-12 year old unit. Macee Eaton, the starting catcher, is the daughter of Jonathan Eaton, a standout football player for the Pirates back in the 1990s. Madison Whittaker is the daughter of Steve Whittaker, who played baseball and golf at West, led the Buckeye Elite travel ball program to national prominence, and increased the Shawnee State softball program’s win total by 13 this past season as its head coach. And two additional players, AndiJo Howard and Sydney Salyers, are following in the footsteps of their talented sisters.
All four started on the championship-winning 11-12 year-old squad, with Eaton showing off a strong bat and arm from behind the plate, Whittaker utilizing her rangy speed in the field, and Howard and Salyers — the latter pair being 11-year olds — have showed off the same dependability that made their sisters household names across the state.
But not only are they carving out their own niche, they’re far from alone in the talent pool. Sami Collins is a talented infielder and middle-of-the order hitter who can play three positions. Madison Brown, Kiera Kennard, Mallory Logan, and Jocelyn Tilley can play two positions in an efficient manner. Hailee Corona provides Wheelersburg with a stellar 1-2 pitching punch in the circle. And Grace Charles, Madison Kotcamp, and Rileigh Lang are each skilled runners who add a key dimension on the basepaths and in the field.
“Our pitching has been great, and our defense, all around, has been excellent,” Salyers said. “As far as singling a person out, I can’t do it, because everybody’s played a huge role in our success. With the subs that come off of our bench, we haven’t missed a beat. We carry 14 girls, and all 14 of them have contributed in a major way.”
When one adds in the fact that the group is as tight off the field as it is on it, the recipe is one that is truly scary for fellow opponents.
“What sets these groups apart from some of the other groups that have come before them is the fact that they are very close,” Salyers said. “It’s a tight-knit group of girls who are all friends and hang out with each other, both on and off of the field. They all get along great. We haven’t had any problems, and that’s very important as far as team chemistry is concerned. I believe that they all work hard together as a community.”
“We’ve always got each other’s backs, no matter what,” the 11-12 year olds said. “Even if we have an argument here or there, we always remember that we are a team at the end of the day. We’ll always remember that.”
The 9-10 year old group, however, is a pretty good unit in its own right — pretty good being one of the understatements of the year. Four players, including pitcher Ashlee Spence, catcher Haley Myers, first baseman Emma Smith, and shortstop Caite Boggs, all batted an astounding .640 or better during its own championship run, with Boggs collecting an astronomical batting average of .808. Smith and Myers batted .643 while Spence batted .640 as the 9-10 year old squad outscored its opponents by an amazing 104-11 margin en route to the state title in its age group.
“It was a very successful 9-10 year-old girls softball All-Star season this year as we were able to capture a state title,” Smith said. “I’d like to thank my two assistant coaches, Jim Vastine and Terry Greenhill, for the job that they did in getting our girls prepared, and the girls themselves for their dedication, effort, and continued improvement throughout the season.”
Like the 11-12 year olds, the 9-10 year old crew is also quite deep. In addition to the aforementioned quartet, Mia Vastine and Shelby Hammond round out a strong infield, while a monstrous seven-player outfield — including Amber Blevins, Laken Wright, Layni Greenhill, Josalynn Conley, Emmi Fannin, Peyton May, and Lauren Kaltenbach — keeps the Lady Pirates secure on that end of the spectrum, as well. The roster of 13 practiced six days a week for up to two to three hours a day in order to accomplish the state’s holy grail.
“The girls had a great run throughout the state tournament,” Smith said. “It’s just a very talented and a very deep team. Every girl did their job, trusted in each other, and produced, and because of that, we didn’t lose a single game throughout our entire tournament run. Our parents also did an excellent job of getting the girls to practice. On most weeks, we practiced between two to three hours a day over six days, which certainly isn’t an easy task for any student-athlete.”
The journey for the 11-12 year olds, however, isn’t done yet. In fact, the 11-12s are already off to a strong start in the Little League Softball Central Region Tournament, having defeated Evergreen Park (Ill.) by a 3-1 tally on Monday evening behind six strong innings of six-hit, 11-strikeout, one-run softball from Howard, along with three hits and two RBI from Eaton. The Lady Pirates will play Appleton (Wis.) on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m., and, with a win, can clinch a high seed when tournament play commences on Thursday.
“We knew what we were up against, and we were familiar with some of the competition that we were going to face,” Salyers said before the regional tournament. “Now, with us going into regional tournament play, that’s where it’s kind of the unknown. We don’t really know what to prepare for or what we’re going to face as far as pitching and hitting are concerned. We know that we’re going to see fast pitching and pitchers that pitch with a lot of movement. Basically, we’re just going to have to try to prepare for anything. That makes (the regional tournament road) a little bit tough.”
However, regardless of how the regional tournament turns out for the 11-12 year olds, it’s clear that the Wheelersburg Little League system has built a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
“It means a lot,” Salyers said of the success. “At the high school level, we’ve been to three straight OHSAA Final Fours with a state title and a state runner-up. This is where it starts. My oldest daughter (Laiken) was a part of it (in 2016) and she went to the regionals when she was this age, so I know that this success here leads to future success.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7