LANCASTER — Dominating pitching, heads-up base running and even a terrific slide all came together for the Wheelersburg Lady Pirates.
However, all of those qualities came together — because of Wheelersburg’s hard work throughout the year.
On Saturday afternoon, Teresa Ruby’s club pulled out yet another hard-fought victory in Division III, Region 11 play by using all of the aforementioned qualities to take home a 2-0 win over the Magnolia Sandy Valley Cardinals to win the Division II, Region 11 title at Lancaster High School and advance to its third straight Final Four at Firestone Stadium in Akron.
The success that Wheelersburg has enjoyed over the past three years speaks volumes about the Lady Pirates’ desire to do whatever it takes — including Ruby herself.
“It says a lot about this team,” Ruby said. “These seniors have lost eight games in four years. They’re tremendous, show great leadership, and the younger kids have bought in because of that. It makes for a successful formula.”
For Faith Howard — who pitched a complete game three-hitter innings en route to striking out nine batters and walking only two for a 4.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio — the victory means the world to the Northern Kentucky signee.
“Going back to state means everything,” Howard said. “We went there in 2015, won it last year, and now, we get to do it again in 2017. For us, with the team unity we have, it means everything to do it together. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of this team and we’re going to bring everything we have to the state level.”
For Brittany Swim, who battled and fought to be in the starting lineup after patiently waiting her turn amongst the program’s most storied program, the victory is just as sweet.
“There isn’t any other team or a group of people that I’d want to go through battles with,” Swim said.
Both teams left of pair of runners on base in the first inning as Wheelersburg and Sandy Valley fought valiantly for control in the early stages of the contest. The Cardinals managed to create some two-out thunder in the first inning with a two-out single by Makayla Loveless and a walk to Arianna Ott, but Howard shut down the threat by striking out the next batter, Mandi Williams, to make Williams the first of her nine punchout victims on the afternoon.
In the bottom half of the frame, Wheelersburg’s leadoff batter, Kalle Coleman, singled. Then, with one out, Kasey Bergan drew a walk to put two on with one gone. But like Howard had in the top half of the first frame, Loveless worked her way out of trouble by inducing a pair of fly balls to stall the rally. The same situation occurred in the second frame for Wheelersburg, as Brittany Swim doubled but was left stranded on third base as a scoring opportunity slipped away for Wheelersburg.
Sandy Valley, utilizing a single and a walk, again put two runners on with just one out in the third inning. But once again, Howard was able to fire back and get herself out of the jam by recording back-to-back strikeouts to end the threat. Sandy Valley left another runner in the fourth inning, as after a single and a sacrifice, a soft line drive snagged by Sarah Claxon retired the side.
With the contest still deadlocked at a scoreless tie, the defending state champions showed their poise in the home half of the fourth inning by mounting a charge. Bre Klaiber singled, and freshman Sydney Spence entered to courtesy run for Klaiber. Howard, the next batter, laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, but Loveless’ throw to first, in an attempt to throw out Howard, was wide. In the midst of the scramble, third base was left uncovered. Spence, who noticed that the base wasn’t being fielded, scampered from first to third on the sacrifice and put runners on the corners with nobody out.
After an infield hit loaded the bases, Swim hit a fly ball to center field. Izzy Hysong, the center fielder, caught and fired a strike to home plate, but an excellent beyond-the-years type slide by Spence allowed Wheelersburg to take a 1-0 lead.
“Sydney (Spence) had a heck of a slide at home plate, which made the difference between out and safe,” Ruby said. “We’ve been talking about it. It’s great to know the young kids are listening. It was the difference maker today. We’ve been telling them that it’s about the little things.”
However, the Lady Pirates weren’t done.
After Howard reached on the error, Mia Darnell came in to courtesy run, and after advancing to second on the sacrifice fly and third on a single by Taylor McQuay, Coleman came up big — as she has done throughout her entire career — by bringing in Darnell to give Wheelersburg a 2-0 lead. Howard took care of business from there as the Lady Pirates clinched their third straight Final Four berth.
And like Howard and Swim before them, Coleman and McQuay are thrilled to obtain that opportunity.
“Even though we’ve already been there before, we are going to get to do it again this year,” Coleman said. “We are more than excited.”
“We’ve got big plans! We’ve done the work and deserve to be here,” McQuay said. “It’s exciting to be here with the people we’ve grown up playing softball with. It means the world to be with these girls.”
Wheelersburg will play on Friday at Firestone Stadium in Akron against Cardington-Lincoln in the OHSAA Division III State Semifinals at 10 a.m. This year marks the third straight year that Wheelersburg has reached the state semi-finals. The Lady Pirates fell to Bloom Carroll in the state semifinals in 2015, but then made its return to the state semifinals in triumphant fashion by defeating Johnston-Monroe, 1-0, last year before defeating Canfield South Range, 8-3, in the Division III State Championship Game.