Goin’ Jeepin’ to Akron!


The 2024 Division III Region 11 softball champion South Webster Jeeps

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

ATHENS — As Addi Claxon clinched the ball in her glove in left field, Ava Messer simply laser-fired her catcher’s mitt in the direction of South Webster’s dugout.

In a matter of seconds, and simply put, the Jeeps were jumping for extreme joy in the pitcher’s circle —and all around sophomore pitcher Jaiden White.

Call it David sling-shotting Goliath, call it USA Hockey of 1980 taking down the Soviet Union, call it Buster Douglass knocking out Mike Tyson in Tokyo, call it the 13 colonies banding together to defeat the almighty British in 1776, and even call it a reality television star being elected President of the United States in 2016.

It simply “wasn’t supposed to happen”, but yet indeed it did.

That’s because, in arguably one of the biggest upsets in Ohio high school softball tournament history on Friday, the South Webster Jeeps just ousted the Wheelersburg Pirates —the two-time defending Division III state champion, and which were aiming to capture their fourth consecutive Region 11 crown.

The dozen-member and now 26-3 Jeeps, though, had other ideas —and simply stunned the Pirates 4-3 in the Division III Region 11 championship tilt at Ohio University’s Softball Field.

It is South Webster’s first-ever regional championship in the sport of softball.

The South Webster Jeeps celebrate after defeating Wheelersburg in Friday’s Division III Region 11 softball championship game at Ohio University’s Softball Field.

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

The Pirates, already with six state tournament appearances in the past decade under 10-year head coach Teresa Ruby, were the ones —with an overwhelming majority of believing observers —thought to be bound for a three-peat of state titles (2022 and 2023), and four overall (2016 was initial).

And, after all, even with the Jeeps returning their ENTIRE roster from last season’s Region 11 runner-up unit to the Pirates, Wheelersburg “wasn’t supposed to lose” this contest —given the results of the previous three-plus meetings.

Wheelersburg blanked South Webster 13-0 in that regional final, then turned a 10-0 five-inning mercy-rule rout in the two teams’ first meeting this year at Wheelersburg —before a 14-3 decision on April 29 at South Webster.

In both games, the Pirates erupted for one inning of at least seven runs —including seven in the fourth frame for the first, and eight in the final stanza in the second.

But, the dozen Jeeps, their coaching staff, and their most diehard of supporters did believe victory was achievable on Friday.

Practice, seven-year SWHS head coach Andy Messer said, paid off.

“This past week, we had some really good practices. We felt going into this with the practices, the attitude and the atmosphere the last few days, we could actually do this. Whereas before, it was just go through the motions and accept what they (Pirates) give us. These girls, tonight, they knew it was going to be a battle. If they wanted to win this game, they knew it was going to be seven innings. I feel like before we’ve given up way too early. But these girls set the tone early tonight, jumping out with a run, then adding one on the next two innings (for 3-0 lead),” said Messer, in his postgame interview with The Portsmouth Daily Times. “Their confidence continued to grow throughout the game and they knew they could pull off this victory. That’s history right there.”

The Jeeps made history, and sent shockwaves throughout the rest of the state.

It had been over a decade since South Webster last defeated Wheelersburg —as the Pirates and Jeeps play twice a season in Southern Ohio Conference competition.

Thus, as Messer explained, the Jeeps just slayed the Division III giant —as Wheelersburg has long been viewed their serious softball nemesis.

“It feels great. I don’t even know how to put it into words,” said the coach. “It’s been something that’s been long-awaited. It’s great to have this for these girls.”

The Pirates have won a mindblowing 146 straight SOC bouts —with Ruby coaching Wheelersburg for the most recent 141 of those.

Had Wheelersburg won, observers easily saw the Orange and Black as once again Division III state tournament favorites —with only two starters having graduated from last season’s state championship squad.

But instead, the third time was South Webster’s charm —as the Jeeps never trailed in the regional final.

They scored one earned run apiece off Wheelersburg junior standout right-hander Kaylynn Carter in the first, second and fourth innings — although the Pirates plated a pair of earned runs in the fifth, followed by the game-tying run in the sixth.

At that point, as AndiJo Howard was pitching for the Pirates her second inning in relief of Carter, the Jeeps got on base again in the top of the seventh—before once again getting on the board and going back in front.

Skylar Zimmerman had a hard-hit leadoff single right at Wheelersburg shortstop Catie Boggs, as fellow Jeep senior Bella Claxon conked a double.

Addi Claxon then drew a Howard walk, before Ruby returned to Carter to face senior Ashlee Spence.

South Webster senior Ashlee Spence (25)

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

Spence, who just two games ago sent South Webster to the district championship with a walkoff solo home run against Ironton, came through in crunch time again.

She once again had the go-ahead, and ultimately game-winning, basehit —this time a single straight to centerfield that scored a sliding Zimmerman.

“Just be resilient. We knew it was going to be a seven-inning battle. Confidence again, we’ve seen this before, we can do it. Just put your hands to the bat and let’s go to battle. They knew they could do it. We had two seniors on the bases and a senior up to bat. No greater opportunity than having three seniors so instrumental in that last inning,” said Coach Messer. “And Ashlee has been clutch lately. Just happy for her.”

With the Jeeps ahead 4-3, Carter did get two force plays at home with the bases loaded —and induced a groundout by White to leave those bags full.

However, with White pitching the way she was, it mattered nary that South Webster left 10 runners on base.

In the bottom of the seventh —just like she did in the second, third and fourth —White retired the Pirates 1-2-3, with Addi Claxon catching two fly balls sandwiched around White’s second strikeout.

Claxon catching that final flyout set South Webster off into a wild and euphoric celebration, as White was almost immediately mobbed by her teammates.

Messer even admitted White was under the weather, limiting the powerful Pirate lineup to only seven hits —while walking none and hitting Boggs with a pitch to lead off the sixth.

More on Boggs’ sixth inning momentarily, but White was masterful —throwing four innings of 1-2-3 softball, and between the first and fifth frames retiring 13 Pirates in a row.

Messer mentioned, before the season started, what the key was in slowing Wheelersburg down.

“We have to limit their hitting. They are a good hitting team. There’s no doubt about it. They’re a hard team to pitch around. You can only pitch around so many of them before they break through and get to you,” he said, in the preseason. “They find holes out in the field and that’s where their strengths are.”

After Ava Estep blooped a single to lead off the Pirate first, and Haley Myers ripped a single down the first-base line for runners at second and third, the next two Pirate baserunners came in the sixth —a one-out single by Laken Wright followed immediately by a double by Rileigh Lang.

“She (White) threw the biggest game of her life, of her career. By far,” said Messer. “To hold down a team like that like, an offense like that to three runs and seven hits is incredible. She grew up by leaps and bounds and by the way, she was sick today. Kudos to her. But she knew just by seeing them so much before we knew where to throw them.”

The majority of the Pirates’ outs were on pop-ups or fly balls —something that cost them in their two regular-season setbacks, against Cabell-Midland (5-3) of West Virginia in the season opener, and against Division II stronghold Sheridan (4-1).

“It’s something we’ve struggled with all year. When our aggressiveness works against us and we’re swinging at pitches out of the zone, we’re hitting them straight up in the air. I bet three-fourths of those outs were pop-outs. In the two games we lost (in the regular season), I can tell you the same story,” said Ruby. “We didn’t hit through the top half of the ball and we let the pitcher work upper part of the zone. To South Webster’s credit, they kept working it and we kept swinging at it.”

Finally in the fifth, with Wright at third and Lang at second, Emma Smith safety-squeeze bunted in Wright —before Estep singled in Lang.

Wheelersburg junior Emma Smith

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

In the sixth, the Pirates tied the game at 3-3 —as Carter helped her cause with a two-out single that crossed Mylee Jo Gleim.

But with a runner at second, White induced Wright into a centerfield flyout to Makayla Raynard—the third gigantic out of the inning for the Jeeps.

The first occurred when senior rightfielder Bre Potters made a solid sprinting catch to deny Sydney Skiver.

Then, in arguably the game’s most impactful play, Howard singled to left with Boggs on second —as Boggs dashed around third looking for the go-ahead run.

South Webster senior catcher Ava Messer tags out Wheelersburg junior shortstop Catie Boggs (20)

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

But Addi Claxon fired a dart directly from left field, Ava Messer made the catch and applied the tag —and indeed Boggs was ruled out at the plate.

That set up the seventh —as the first four Jeeps reached base, with Spence singling in Zimmerman and making it 4-3.

South Webster combined for 11 hits off Carter (eight) and Howard (three), as both walked a pair while Carter struck out five.

Carter faced 27 total Jeeps and allowed three earned runs, but Howard was charged with the pitching loss — since she started the South Webster seventh.

In the first, Lauren Kaltenbach singled to lead off, and Zimmerman doubled to score her—combined with a Pirate fielding error.

In the second, Raynard rocked a one-out double off the left-centerfield fence — and designated player and nine-hole hitter Laiken Lancaster singled her in with two away.

Raynard and Lancaster then combined for the Jeeps’ fourth-inning run —once again with two outs as Raynard walked with one.

This time, Lancaster doubled to left center — and Raynard raced around from first for the surprising 3-0 lead.

“They (Jeeps) hit the ball very well. Came up with timely hits with people on base, and that’s what we failed at today,” said Ruby.

Zimmerman was 3-of-4 —also reaching on an infield hit to lead off the third, and on the other Pirate error to lead off the fifth.

South Webster senior Skylar Zimmerman is safe at first base.

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

Lancaster walked twice, as Ava Messer singled to lead off the sixth.

Messer’s father, and coach, commented about his Jeeps “just learning”.

“Every time you face them, that’s experience. You learn, and that’s just what it was,” he said. “Everybody was on board with what we were doing. Pitching, hitting, everything. We just had a good confident feeling about all of it.”

The Pirates probably had confidence going in, but unfortunately for them, they had a tearful trophy ceremony coming out.

Wheelersburg went 21-3, as the four-person Pirate senior class combined to go 106-6 for their decorated careers.

Wheelersburg senior catcher Haley Myers

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

This was Wheelersburg’s first postseason loss since the 2021 state semifinal against eventual champion Fairview, and first before the state tournament — since an upset loss to Fairfield in the 2019 Division III district final.

Of course, the entire 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus threat.

Ruby, who ends her 10th season at Wheelersburg with now 513 career victories, remarked about her senior quartet —the left-hander Howard, the catcher Myers, the third baseman Skiver, and the rightfielder Lang.

For those into counting, that’s four regional championship game appearances, three Region 11 titles, and two coveted state championships.

Three of those four —Howard, Myers and Skiver —have committed to playing collegiate softball.

“Our four seniors, they need to hold their heads up. Just tremendous pacesetters for us. They are leaving a legacy and are setting an example for so many to follow. If those behind them follow their path, we will continue to be successful. I can’t brag on those four young ladies enough. It’s an amazing resume they all have and they are outstanding young ladies off the field as well,” raved Ruby. “They’ve been nothing but an absolute pure joy to coach.”

As for South Webster’s fivesome of seniors —Bella Claxon, Zimmerman, Potters, Messer and Spence —they are the ones bound for Akron this year.

As sophomores three years ago, Zimmerman and Claxon played key roles on the Jeeps’ first-ever regional championship volleyball club.

Messer, meanwhile, has played in three Southeast District Division II girls golf tournaments.

“These seniors are just great athletes all-around. From volleyball to basketball to Ava (Messer) playing golf. It’s everything. It doesn’t matter what they play. And they don’t dedicate their whole lives just to softball. They play all sports,” said Coach Messer. “It’s special to get something for them and head to state. They deserve it. They’ve worked hard for all these years and I am glad to see them finally get this.”

Senior members of the 2024 South Webster High School softball squad are, from left, Ashlee Spence, Bella Claxon, Bre Potters, Skylar Zimmerman and Ava Messer

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

South Webster will play 28-3 South Range in the Division III state semifinals —with first pitch set for Thursday (May 30) at 5:30 p.m. at Akron’s historic Firestone Stadium.

South Range, which won its region last season and lost to Wheelersburg 6-1 in the state semifinals, returned to Akron via way of a one-run win of its own —a 1-0 eight-inning epic over Warren Champion on Friday.

“We’re going to prepare and be ready and go with it,” said Messer.

* * *

South Webster 110 100 1 —4 11 0

Wheelersburg 000 021 0 —3 7 2

SWHS: Jaiden White 7IP, 3R, 3ER, 7H, 1HB, 0BB, 1BB, 0WP, 2K, 28BF

WHS: Kaylynn Carter 6IP, 3R, 3ER, 8H, 0HB, 2BB, 0IBB, 0WP, 5K, 27BF; AndiJo Howard 1+IP, 1R, 1ER, 3H, 0HB, 2BB, 0IBB, 0WP, 1K, 8BF

W —Jaiden White; L — AndiJo Howard

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on X @paulboggssports © 2024 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved

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