Raiders too much for Jeeps


South Webster softball head coach Andy Messer is pictured with his Jeep infielders. Counterclockwise from left are catcher Ava Messer, first baseman Ashlee Spence, second baseman Lauren Kaltenbach, pitcher Jaiden White, shortstop Skylar Zimmerman and third baseman Bella Claxon.

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

AKRON —The hope was that South Webster’s wind — number three to be exact— found itself somewhere.

But simply put, when the South Range Raiders reeled off five runs on six hits —on four Jaiden White pitches even —in the decisive fifth inning on Thursday night, there was unfortunately no more fuel left in these Jeeps’ tanks.

As a result, the now three-time Division III state softball runner-up (2016, 2021 and 2024) Raiders ended South Webster’s thrill ride — as South Range defeated the Jeeps 11-4 in the Division III state semifinals inside Akron’s historic Firestone Stadium.

The Jeeps — spearheaded by seniors Skylar Zimmerman, Ava Messer, Bre Potters, Bella Claxon and Ashlee Spence —finish their historic season at 25-4, having lost to only three teams with over 20 wins apiece.

The regional championship is their first all time in the sport —and matches the Division IV Region 15 title the SWHS volleyball squad captured in 2021.

South Webster exacted an epic and monumental measure of revenge when it upset Wheelersburg 4-3 for the regional championship —and the piggyback belief was that the Jeeps could definitely take down South Range too.

But the Raiders, which have appeared in the state tournament now four times including three of the past four, relied on experience and hitting prowess —touching up the sophomore South Webster hurler White for 19 hits.

South Webster senior Bre Potters

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

Of the Raiders’ 11 runs, nine were earned —as only two second-stanza points putting South Range up 3-0 were of the unearned variety.

The Jeeps made two errors.

Indeed, the Jeeps’ road to the state tournament wasn’t always paved in yellow bricks —as there were significant speedbumps, largely in the form of the proverbial Orange and Black barrels of the longtime archrival and nemesis Pirates.

Wheelersburg won the Region 11 championship three years in a row —including over West and South Webster in its last two Elite Eight games.

However, it just wasn’t the Jeeps’ night —as the Raiders returned several players from last season’s state semifinalist unit, which lost to the eventual state champion Pirates, part of their back-to-back Division III state titles.

Afterwards on Thursday night, as the Firestone Stadium crowd cleared out, the five Jeep seniors and their head coach spoke at a tearful press conference.

“It’s been a battle, but it’s been a great year all year,” said SWHS head coach Andy Messer, concluding his seventh season at the helm. “We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles to get here and the girls have fought all year long. Unfortunately, it’s not the outcome we wanted tonight, but I’m proud of all these girls and what they’ve done this year.”

South Webster never led, but caught fire in the third frame for the 3-3 tie.

But South Range exploded in the fifth for five on six —building leads as large as 8-3 and 9-4 in the sixth, before finally scoring two more in the seventh.

In all, the Raiders tallied eight of the final nine runs — over the final three innings in fact — for the win.

White threw 76 pitches, as 60 went for strikes, but that meant South Range racked up hits —19 to be precise.

South Webster senior Ava Messer

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

By innings, it went one run on two hits, no runs on two hits, two unearned runs on three hits, no runs on one hit, five runs on four hits, one run on two hits, and finally two runs on three hits.

Against the Pirates, White pitched the game of her life —stymieing the powerful Pirate offense to only seven baseknocks, and retiring Wheelersburg batters to 13 consecutive at one point.

But the Raiders weren’t Wheelersburg —although they resembled it in the fifth.

The Pirates, against the Jeeps, poured on seven runs in the fourth frame for the opening meeting at Wheelersburg’s Gene Bennett Park —and eight points in the seventh stanza to pull away from a 6-3 score at South Webster.

“Sometimes, you just try to find an answer in the middle of an inning. A lot of thoughts go through your head of what to do, different scenarios are playing out. They just capitalized really quick before we could make any adjustments or anything,” said Coach Messer. “Unfortunately they were hitting balls that were unfieldable for us. They hit the gaps and did a great job. That was the big inning for them and it was too big of a gap to overcome.”

South Webster senior Skylar Zimmerman

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

Those basehits were hard-hit gappers, Messer added, as well as shots down the left-field and right-field lines.

On the opening at-bat in fact, South Range’s Kiera Brogan belted a double down the left-field chalk —that Addi Claxon lost in the setting sun at the top of the 7 p.m. hour.

Up next was Giada Pauline, who singled to right to score Brogan for the 1-0 Raider lead.

Pauline, in the fifth, made it 8-3 —with the only two-run South Range basehit being a single to center that tagged her out 8-2-6 for the final out of the inning.

By then, though, the damage to the Jeeps was already done.

Messer compared the Raiders to the Pirates.

“A lot hard hits, they are a good hitting team. No doubt about it and we knew that coming in,” he said. “They started timing Jaiden up, started hitting gaps.”

The Jeeps, looking for that magic again after the Wheelersburg win and tying the state semifinal 3-3, just could never rediscover it after that.

But after going down 1-2-3 against South Range pitcher Jayli Wilt in the opening two innings, they indeed made things interesting in the third —and picked business back up.

Seven Jeep batters went to the plate, as Makayla Raynard drew a leadoff walk —and White helped her cause with a single and the Raiders’ only error, which allowed Raynard to race home.

With two outs, Zimmerman was hit by a Wilt pitch —setting up the 3-3 tie, in which Bella Claxon conked a two-run double off the left-centerfield fence to cross White and Zimmerman.

South Webster senior Bella Claxon

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

But Wilt struck out the final Jeep of the inning with Claxon on second —part of her six for the game, of the 31 batters she faced.

Still, at 3-3 — and facing Wilt for the second time through the lineup — South Webster was experiencing a revival at the plate.

That energy expanded into the dugout, the coach explained.

Until…it didn’t.

“We felt confident. We really did. These girls had a lot of momentum coming into this game, and felt like they could do it. We tried to pound out hits in every inning and score runs. It was a new ballgame at 3-3,” said Messer. “Unfortunately, we kind of shut down instead of keeping moving forward.”

In the Jeep fourth, Spence and Ava Messer singled to lead off —but Wilt retired the next three Jeeps on lineouts or pop-outs.

South Webster scored its only other run in the fifth for an 8-4 deficit —when Lauren Kaltenbach singled to lead off, and Claxon doubled to right with one out to bring her around.

From there, though, Wilt retired the next seven Jeeps —until Zimmerman singled and Claxon walked with two outs in the seventh.

But Wilt struck out looking the final Jeep batter to end it.

“They got us chasing a lot of bad pitches. We hit a lot of pop-ups. We just have didn’t the quality at-bats that we preferred to have,” said Messer. “Just squaring the ball up was not on our side tonight.”

Zimmerman added that the energy level just wasn’t there after the Raiders’ five-run fifth.

“We had an unmatched energy during the Wheelersburg game. In the middle of the third inning, we needed to have that energy again,” she said, through tears. “Our energy kept growing, but when they started getting hits over and over, it just went down.”

Claxon concurred.

“They (Raiders) are just very relentless on offense. We kept trying to find answers and sometimes, it’s just not your day,” she said. “I think we did a great job of fighting back initially, but it was hard to maintain that energy and keep bringing it at them when they just kept hitting us so hard with it.”

And, it was a difficult defeat for the Jeeps to deal with — as the senior class captured three Southeast District championships (2022 in Division IV, 2023 and 2024 in Division III) along the way.

Spence, for her credit, sent South Webster into first the regional tournament —with her walk-off solo home run against Ironton in the district final.

Her go-ahead top of the seventh single scored Zimmerman, lifting the Jeeps past the Pirates 4-3.

“This team is so special,” said Spence. “The memories throughout the years, I feel like no team has the chemistry that we have. The experiences we’ve had in the past, it’s helped us along the way to not be as nervous and come along.”

These seniors have played softball for Coach Messer since their youth —so it’s fitting they end their careers with the school’s first state tournament appearance.

“Growing up, we were always pretty solid. We’ve been with Andy (Messer) for as long as we’ve played softball. When were younger, we knew we were a pretty good group. We just wanted to keep building,” said Claxon. “I’m just really happy that we were able to achieve that goal of getting here.”

No doubt, despite no fuel late on Thursday night, these Jeeps did put South Webster on the proverbial softball map.

“It’s great doing something that nobody at South Webster has ever done before,” said Coach Messer. “We’ll have that ‘24 up on the wall as regional champs. We’re doing something moving forward with the program, and that’s a great thing to see.”

South Webster junior Jaiden White

Ed Litteral | Daily Times

* * *

South Range 102 051 2 —11 19 1

South Webster 003 010 0 —4 7 2

SRHS: Jayli Wilt 7IP, 4R, 4ER, 7H, 1HB, 2BB, 0IBB, 0WP, 6K, 31BF

SWHS: Jaiden White 7IP, 11R, 9ER, 19H, 0HB, 0BB, 0IBB, 0WP, 4K, 40BF

W —Jayli Wilt (27-1); L —Jaiden White (19-4)

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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