LANCASTER — When her high school softball career ends, there’s no question that Wheelersburg’s Faith Howard will depart as not only one of the best softball players to ever come through not only Southern Ohio or the Tri-State Area, but the entire state of Ohio.
However, what Howard has accomplished through the first four games of her final postseason run with the Lady Pirates has been truly remarkable.
Four complete games. Four hits allowed — total — over the senior’s first four outings. A perfect game in Wheelersburg’s sectional final victory over South Point.
So why not add a no-hitter in regional play?
On Wednesday afternoon, that’s exactly what Howard did as the Northern Kentucky signee retired the last 20 Piketon Lady Streak batters that she faced — her only blemish, if you want to call it that, a walk to Piketon’s Camryn Alexander — en route to a no-hitter and a 5-0 Wheelersburg win in the Division III, Region 11 Semifinals at Lancaster High School.
In throwing yet another gem of a game, Howard also collected 10 strikeouts to obtain an even 200 for the year. The senior accomplished the rare feat by striking out the game’s penultimate batter, Kennedy Cooper, to send the couple hundred Wheelersburg fans in attendance into a frenzy.
“I’m always happy for the kids,” Wheelersburg head coach Teresa Ruby said of Howard’s accomplishment. “Faith’s one of those kids that’s put in the time, effort, and heart, so it’s always nice to see good things happen.”
After Alexander walked to start the bottom half of the first inning, Piketon’s ace advanced into scoring position behind a 1-3 sacrifice bunt from Cooper.
However, that was as far as she — and the remainder of the Lady Streak lineup — would get on the afternoon, thanks in part to a great play by third baseman Bre Klaiber and first baseman Sarah Claxon in the bottom half of the first.
With one out in the frame, three-hole hitter Graci Smith rocketed a ball that looked like it would find grass on the left side of the diamond.
However, Klaiber quickly reacted to the well-hit ball, picked it, fired a well-thrown ball to Claxon to record the out, then fielded an equally well-thrown bullet by Claxon to gun Alexander at third — who tried to advance on the initial throw — for the 5-3-5 double play. That play was vital in getting Howard off to a good start — and fueled a defense that didn’t commit an error all game long.
“That is part of Faith’s success,” Ruby said. “She knows that she can relax and work on the mound. If she happens to make a mistake or put the ball in play, she’s got a solid defense behind her. Knowing that has to be big in a pitcher’s mind.”
But make no mistake about it — Alexander and Piketon came to play.
In fact, the leadoff hitter and standout pitcher proved to be tough to crack, as Alexander allowed just two hits — both singles — through the first four innings of play. Wheelersburg was able to break the scoreless tie in the fourth inning with help from Kasey Bergan’s leadoff single, but even then, runs came at a premium, as it took a passed ball and an error for the catcher to come around and score.
“Piketon played a good game,” Ruby said. “I certainly want to compliment them on their efforts. They executed very well. We skied a lot of balls, and it took us a few innings before we started to hit through the middle of the ball.”
However, from the fifth inning forward, the Lady Pirates showed why the defending Division III state champions are, indeed, the state’s No. 1-ranked unit in 2017, as well.
Designated player Taylor McQuay got things rolling for the ‘Burg in the fifth inning with her leadoff single back up the middle of the diamond, and, after a well-placed bunt sacrifice from Christen Risner, came around to score on Kalle Coleman’s rocket of a double to left center field as Wheelersburg took a 2-0 lead in the fifth. Then, in the sixth, a leadoff single and a stolen base by Klaiber, along with a sacrifice bunt from Howard, allowed Claxon to drive Klaiber in via a 6-3 groundout RBI as the Lady Pirates took a 3-0 advantage.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve scored quite a bit,” Ruby said. “It was nice to see the kids execute and drive runs in through small ball. I think that’s good for us to get to that point.”
In the seventh and final inning, Wheelersburg proved that the bats were alive and well.
After another leadoff hit from Coleman — the Lady Pirates’ fourth consecutive leadoff hit in as many innings — and a stolen base, the senior advanced on a sacrifice bunt from Taylor Fannin and scored on a sacrifice fly RBI from Bergan. Klaiber then singled and advanced to second on an outfield error, and, after a walk by Howard, Claxon came through again with a flare to left field to score Klaiber from second base to cap the scoring.
“Being able to manufacture runs gives me a little bit of peace of mind, but I’ll take the hitting,” Ruby laughed.
With the regional semifinals in the books, Wheelersburg will turn around and play Magnolia Sandy Valley, the state’s No. 6-ranked unit in Division III, in the Division III, Region 11 Finals on Saturday at 12 p.m. Sandy Valley trailed Williamsport Westfall 3-1 in the sixth inning, but scored nine runs in the penultimate frame to advance with a 10-3 victory over Westfall.
“It’s going to be a good ballgame,” Ruby said. “Sandy Valley is a quality program. We know that our next game is going to be a battle. It’s regional final softball.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7