Defense leads Pirates back to final

AKRON — Simply put — or pretty much at least — when Wheelersburg’s Pirates play softball like they did on Thursday, they’ll be hard-pressed to be defeated.

And, so far, through 31 games now, nobody has done that.

In fact, very few have even come close.

Henceforth, all that remains for the perfect Pirates is one more matchup —a chance to complete an undefeated season, and go back-to-back in bringing home a gold state championship trophy.

In all three phases for Thursday, the Pirates —and against one of the best opponents they have encountered all season —put together arguably their most complete performance, capturing a 6-1 Division III semifinal victory over South Range inside Akron’s historic yet toasty Firestone Stadium.

Yes, you read that right —in 31 games and with 31 triumphs, one could casemake this being Wheelersburg’s best game all year.

The defending Division III state champions, playing in their third consecutive state tournament and seventh in program history, are now 58-1 over the past two years — having posted 17 shutouts this season.

In fact, of those 14 games in which teams have scored against the Pirates, they have now allowed only 44 runs all year.

South Range got its only run in the top of the fifth —but by then, Wheelersburg was already ahead 6-0, and in pretty much command.

The defense definitely did its job, junior left-hander AndiJo Howard had her third state tournament pitching win in four tries, Kaylynn Carter came on in relief yet again and closed the game off, and once again Macee Eaton sent an opposing pitcher’s offering well beyond the Firestone Stadium fence.

It all added up to a Pirate production, on a hot and humid afternoon in Akron, that was much delight to veteran head coach Teresa Ruby — and the Pirate players.

“I think it was,” admitted Howard. “I think we have the best defense in Ohio, and every play we made today, we’ve been doing that the whole season. But today, it just all came together.”

And Ruby would know, as she coached the Pirates in each of their state tournament tilts since 2015, which also included the 2016 Division III state championship —a win over South Range then too.

“Regular season is one thing, but when you’re able to do it on this level is another thing,” said the coach. “We told the team that the team that controls its emotions is the team that will win. So far, we’ve done a great job of doing that. Just happy with how hard we fought and AndiJo pitched through some hot innings out there, and we played well today.”

Controlling emotions is one thing, but pitching and making major league defensive plays is something else.

Howard had allowed just three baserunners through four innings —a one-out walk to her pitching counterpart Juli Stachowicz in the second, a two-out double to Kiera Brogran in the third, and finally a one-out single to Samantha Susany in the fourth.

Howard left all three stranded, including Brogran at second and Susany at third — thanks in large part to the Pirates playing defense behind her.

Sophomore second baseman Emma Smith amassed four defensive assists and three putouts through the opening six innings —including her catching an innocent infield pop-up to thwart the biggest Raider threat of the game.

With Wheelersburg leading 6-1 in the sixth, Ruby relieved a tiring Howard after Stachowicz and Jayli Wilt singled —and Howard’s only other walk to Anna Aey loaded the Raider bases.

Carter came in and induced Ashley Rupert popping out to Smith, before Carter’s 1-2-3 seventh inning —ended by third baseman Sydney Skiver getting in on the defensive gems.

On the game-ending at-bat, Skiver dove and fielded a grounder to her right and actually into foul territory — firing her throw to first base from her knees.

Throw in junior rightfielder Rileigh Lang — who ended three innings with three flyball catches, including a couple in which she tracked down well on the run.

Lang also, on Rupert’s at-bat in the second, amounted a defensive assist — scooping up an apparent basehit and turning it into a 9-3 groundout.

Howard had four strikeouts, but the story was her defense behind her.

And, playing on turf for the first time all season.

The Pirates practiced this week at Rock Hill, as the Redwomen’s facility features FieldTurf.

“We were a little worried coming in, because we hadn’t played on any turf all year. But our defense, I haven’t seen anybody better, all nine positions, We play very solid defense,” said Ruby. “We talk to our two pitchers all the time to trust your defense. Just relax, hit your spots, pitch to contact and let your defense do the work.”

“They (Pirates) made amazing plays defensively. That’s the difference,” added SRHS coach Jeff DeRose.

But don’t forget about Wheelersburg’s explosive offense —which cranked out eight hits and scored single runs in innings one and four, sandwiched around two runs apiece in innings two and three.

And, of those eight hits —two apiece in each of the opening four innings off Stachowicz as the Pirates went down 1-2-3 in the fifth and sixth —once again, Eaton’s amassed the most drama.

Already with Wheelersburg leading 3-0 in the third, the two-time Division III first-team all-Ohioan and University of Virginia signee smashed a solo homer to left field —giving her three state tournament homers, 15 for her senior season, and 49 for her decorated Pirate career.

Her 34th career home run came in last season’s state championship tilt —giving the Pirates their fifth and final run in that bout.

Eaton, of course, was asked about it afterwards —and to compare the two.

She modestly deflected the attention instead.

“Our team just has each other’s backs. Just constantly staying positive and getting that affirmation from all your teammates and having confidence in yourself. We can do whatever we put our minds too,” said Eaton. “Last year, that was a different home run in a different game for a different team. There’s really no comparing. This was a new game, a new team, and I’m just glad we got the victory.”

But Eaton wasn’t done at the dish, as she set up the Pirates’ sixth and final run with a fourth-inning line-drive triple — dead-on directly over the centerfielder’s head.

Catie Boggs then perfectly executed a squeeze bunt for a single —as Eaton raced in and made it 6-0.

Boggs began her day with a first-inning RBI-single —as Ava Estep singled to lead off, advanced to second on a groundout, then scored on Boggs’ basehit to right.

Immediately after Eaton’s home run, Boggs reached base on a dropped third strike and passed ball —and Skiver singled her in to make it 5-0.

In between and around, both Howard and Carter —the latter in the lineup as the designated player in the frame —drew walks.

In the second, and with one out, Stachowitz hit Carter with a pitch — and Smith beat out an infield hit on a bunt.

An Estep single, combined with the Raiders’ only error, allowed Carter to score an earned run —and Smith an unearned marker.

The Raiders got their run in the fifth, on back-to-back-to-back hits by Aey, Rupert and Brogran —as Aey doubled and then scored on Rupert’s RBI-single.

South Range then had runners on the corners, but Howard induced a 4-6 fielder’s choice —and Lang’s running catch with both runners in scoring position ended that.

Carter then came in with the Raider bases loaded, and prevented South Range from seizing momentum and making a comeback.

“That’s always a tough decision (to replace Howard with Carter). I’m not going to lie. You could just see AndiJo is getting tired. But when I say we’ve worked on this all year, the kids will tell you we work on that situation all the time and we’ve used Kaylynn in this situation before,” said Ruby. “It’s nice because we have a lefty and a righty and they both throw very different dynamic pitches. Hitters see AndiJo two or three times and they settle in with her, so being able to give a totally different look with Kaylynn, that’s a good thing for us.”

Another good thing —the Pirates play on Saturday for their third all-time state championship, right back at Firestone Stadium.

First pitch is set for 10 a.m., as Wheelersburg will face 26-3 Indian Lake —as the Lakers, making their first-ever state softball tournament appearance, scored three sixth-inning runs to shut out Johnstown 3-0.

The Pirates, like against South Range, are the Saturday morning observers’ favorites for the state title — as Ruby simply said don’t fix what isn’t broken.

On Thursday, it all worked for Wheelersburg —and when the Pirates play like that, it’s highly likely nobody beats them.

“It gets old, I know. But I tell you, we just say to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” said Ruby. “We’ve prepared for this all year, and just trust the process and trust each other.”

* * *

South Range 000 010 0 —1 7 1

Wheelersburg 122 100 X —6 8 1

SRHS: Juli Stachowicz 6IP, 6R, 4ER, 1HB, 2BB, 8H, 0WP, 3K, 30BF

WHS: AndiJo Howard 5 2/3IP, 1R, 1ER, 2BB, 0HB, 7H, 0WP, 4K, 26BF; Kaylynn Carter 1 1/3IP, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 0HB, 0H, 0WP, 1K, 4BF

W —AndiJo Howard; L —Juli Stachowicz

HR —Macee Eaton, Wheelersburg, 3rd inning, none on

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2023 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reservedReach