WHEELERSBURG —As it’s officially June, the Wheelersburg Pirates are once again taking up weekend residence in the Rubber City.
This is now the sixth time since 2015 —and remember the canceled campaign of 2020 due to the coronavirus threat — that the Pirates are playing in the state softball tournament, and seventh time overall (2004 was first).
Furthermore, all six — 2015, 2016, 2017, 2021, 2022 and 2023 — since this band of Pirates were born have taken place in Akron, including three consecutive now —as the 2022 team joined the 2016 squad as Division III state champions.
The question now for these undefeated at 30-0 Pirates: Can they in fact repeat, and send senior starters Macee Eaton and Kiera Kennard out as two-time state champions?
Two other seniors —Jaelin Thomas and Kierra Rafalowski —were also on the roster last season, and Thomas played sparingly even.
Wheelersburg, which played in the final state semifinal last year followed by the Saturday night championship game, is an earlier bird at this year’s state tournament —facing 26-3 South Range in Thursday’s second Division III state semi.
First pitch is set for 12:30 p.m. —inside the friendly confines of Akron’s old-school Firestone Stadium.
Wheelersburg, which was the wire-to-wire top-ranked team in the Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association statewide poll, will be the home team — and is the Thursday morning line favorite to repeat as state champions.
Teresa Ruby, who has coached the Pirates for the past decade (since 2014) and who has yet to lose ANY of her 131 Southern Ohio Conference Division II tilts as head coach, recently talked about the “resiliency” of this particular Pirate club.
Believe that or not, as Wheelersburg won all 30 of its games to date —despite a couple of close calls, including in the Southeast District Division III championship bout against Wellston.
The Pirates prevailed 9-6, but it was their closest postseason contest at the sectional, district AND regional levels — since their upset loss against Fairfield for the 2019 district title.
They also needed to rally past visiting Northwest 7-6 —their closest encounter in this entire undefeated dream season.
“We just keep talking about taking punches, because we’re going to get everybody’s best shots, but we’ve shown we’re resilient and we can come right back,” said Ruby, following the Wellston win.
Resilient yes, and just dynamite good too.
Wheelersburg’s defensive rotation —junior catcher Haley Myers, the senior first baseman Eaton, sophomore second baseman Emma Smith, junior third baseman Sydney Skiver, sophomore shortstop Catie Boggs, the senior centerfielder Kennard, junior rightfielder Rileigh Lang and freshman leftfielder Ava Estep —is about as rock solid as one could hope for.
“To me, this defense is about as good as it gets,” revealed Ruby. “We tell our pitchers you can pitch to contact when they have this defense behind them.”
The Pirates’ pitching punch of junior left-hander AndiJo Howard and sophomore right-hander Kaylynn Carter can, and do, indeed offer a great change of pace —as Howard already has three state tournament performances to her credit.
Carter has one, coming on in relief in last season’s state championship game against Tuslaw — and making sure the Mustangs didn’t get running in the sixth and seventh innings.
She got all three outs in that sixth stanza with the Pirates leading 4-2 —and the Mustangs’ momentum building with a runner at third.
In two innings of work in the circle, Carter allowed no hits and no runs with a pair of strikeouts.
Against Wellston for the district final, Howard pitched into the fifth with Wheelersburg leading 5-3, but the Golden Rockets got a pair of singles —leading to Carter coming in for Howard again.
Once again, despite Golden Rockets in scoring position —Carter clamped down and got three straight outs, including a pair of strikeouts.
Don’t be surprised to see Ruby mix and match — and cross-up the Rangers — with Howard first and Carter coming in yet again.
“That’s just it. We’ve got a nice one-two punch with AndiJo (Howard) and Kaylynn (Carter),” said the coach. “They are two entirely different pitchers. When you put them in, you are giving the other team a whole different look. The idea is to catch them and they have to adjust quickly to what they are going to see.”
What opponents truly hate to see is Wheelersburg’s batting order —all one thru nine.
The Pirates’ lineup has been consistent, and constant, all season —so expect Estep, Myers, Eaton, Boggs, Howard, Skiver, sophomore designated players Carter or Laken Wright, Smith and lastly Lang to be the likely order.
Carter or Wright will bat for Kennard — as Eaton with 14, Boggs with 13 and Howard with 12 have combined for one shy of 40 home runs so far.
“It’s just the energy they generate. When they do well, it brings a lot of energy to our lineup and all flows so well,” said Ruby. “Catie (Boggs) has really improved this year, and that’s saying a lot because she was already good. The work and effort and development she’s put in, you can really see the results this year. You put those two (Eaton and Boggs) together and with AndiJo behind them, it’s a pretty powerful middle of the lineup. Just gives us a ton of energy.”
Then don’t forget Myers in front and Skiver in back of that trio —who can put power displays on of their own.
Eaton, already the two-time first-team Division III all-Ohioan and University of Virginia signee, is at 48 home runs for her career —having hit 20 last season, including for the final run in the top of the seventh of the Pirates’ state championship win.
Last year at this time, a major preview point was whether Cardington-Lincoln in the semifinal —then Tuslaw in the championship —would pitch to Eaton, or avoid her altogether with an intentional walk or two.
Or, maybe even three or four.
That’s again another factor for the Pirates, as Eaton —in all honesty —isn’t getting many pitches to realistically swing at.
But hey, that’s the Rangers’ problem to deal with —and poison pill to possibly swallow — on Thursday.
Eaton already, unofficially, is at 28 walks for the year.
However, always a stand-up teammate and one of the best winners in Wheelersburg girls sports history, Eaton —and Kennard —only want to walk out of Akron as state champions once again.
The winner will play the winner of Thursday’s first semifinal for the Division III state championship —set for 10 a.m. on Saturday.
That first semifinal features Johnstown and Indian Lake — as Indian Lake is making its first-ever appearance in the state softball Final Four.
“You get this far, everybody is good,” said Ruby. “We tell our kids that we just need to do what we do. And if we keep doing what we do, good things will happen.”
For the Pirates, that good thing would be another softball state championship — at their early June home away from home.