MINFORD — In quite a few cases, younger units are at a disadvantage from an experience standpoint.
However, there are also perks that come with a younger team, as well — especially when that young team bands together and shows the special qualities that the program has become known for over the years.
On Friday evening, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ softball program, once again, showed why it is a force to be reckoned with as solid pitching performances from Sydney Spence and Sarah Claxon, along with a pair of home runs — one each from Mallory Bergan and Addi Collins — allowed Wheelersburg to overcome an early 1-0 deficit and battle back from a 3-3 tie during the middle innings en route to an 8-4 victory over the Minford Falcons’ softball program in an crucial SOC II bout that was played in Minford.
For Teresa Ruby, the fifth-year leader of the Lady Pirates couldn’t ask for much more out of her unit — especially considering that Wheelersburg — who played Minford and Oak Hill twice in addition to Vanceburg (Ky.) Lewis County during the week — finished the regular school week with a 5-0 mark.
“A lot of other people are talking about how young some of the other teams are, and I’m telling them that we’re every bit as young as everybody else,” Ruby said. “We’ve got one kid (Taylor Fannin) that’s in the same spot that she played last year, and that’s it. That’s a lot of moving parts. I’m really proud of them. I told them, ‘It’s been a tough week with Minford twice and Oak Hill twice.’ We played every day this week, so I didn’t know what to expect. The girls showed me a lot of heart and a lot of determination. I’m tickled to death with the result.”
Even in defeat, Preston Messer, however, couldn’t find much to qualm about himself — especially considering how hard the Lady Falcons battled without the services of Zoe Doll in the batting order due to injury.
“Our girls fought and fought, but we just make too many mistakes, and when you have errors and mistakes, it’s hard to beat a good team like Wheelersburg,” Messer said. “I’m still proud of our girls. They could’ve hung their heads, but they came back and fought.”
And as a matter of fact, it was Minford who struck first during the primo conference battle. An error, followed by a 1-3 sacrifice bunt by Brittani Wolfenbarker, allowed Hannah Tolle to drive in Emily Shoemaker with an RBI single back up the middle of the playing surface as the Lady Falcons took an early 1-0 advantage after an inning of action.
Wheelersburg, however, wasted little time answering the bell.
After a leadoff double by Laney Eller to begin the bottom of the third inning of play, a 2-3 sacrifice bunt by Taylor Fannin, along with a wild pitch, scored Eller as the Lady Pirates tied the score. An error and an intentional walk to Boo Sturgill then set the table for Sarah Claxon, who shot a critical two-run single into right field with two outs on the board as Wheelersburg took a 3-1 advantage after three innings of work.
“It’s rough on us not having Zoe,” Messer said. “She can’t hit (due to injury), and that takes a big stick out of our lineup. But that’s not an excuse. We need to clean our errors up. We beat ourselves tonight. I’m not saying Wheelersburg didn’t beat us, because they did, but we had a lot of defensive mistakes, as well.”
As the Lady Pirates established their lead, Spence, who got the start inside the circle, continued to show off her impressive pitching skills. Over the first three innings of play, the sophomore didn’t allow an earned run while ultimately giving up five hits and striking out three in her four innings of play. Claxon then came on for Spence in the fifth and pitched three innings of one-run softball while also allowing five hits and striking out a pair. Neither player walked a single Minford batter in the contest.
“They compliment each other really well,” Ruby said of Spence and Claxon. “We’re finding that out and trying to work through that. Sarah had an injury earlier in the year, and that put Syd in a spot where we had to depend on her. She’s been huge and has really stepped up for us. I said to the kids, ‘When you go through a season, there’s always going to be an injury or something that comes up, and somebody has to step up.’ That’s why it’s important for them every day to work and get better, because one day, I may have to point at them and say, ‘You’re who we need,’ and Syd’s done that. It’s been a nice surprise. Actually, we’ve been fortunate to find out that we’ve got her as an option in the circle, and it makes us a better team.”
However, Minford showed that it wasn’t going anywhere with its work in the fourth inning of action. A leadoff double by Tolle eventually transitioned into a pair of runs for the Lady Falcons as effective two-out hitting from Tamara Burchett — who obtained an RBI double to right center — and Hannah Thacker, who clubbed an RBI single to left — knotted the score at three apiece as Minford showed a great deal of fight with only one senior in its starting batting order.
In addition to her strong 2-for-4 day at the plate from the three-hole with an RBI and a run scored, Tolle was solid in the circle, as well.
Even though the end line may not showcase the solid work that the sophomore put together as Minford’s go-to pitcher for the evening, Tolle allowed just three hits and two earned runs to cross the plate through four innings of action. While the fifth inning saw four Wheelersburg runs come in to score, two of those runs were via intentional walks, while the third came via a rare bunt double. Two infield errors were also critical in the scoring outcome.
“We threw Zoe against Wheelersburg the first time, so we figured that we would change it up and throw Hannah this time around, and she did her job,” Messer said. “We’ve just got to field the baseball and get outs. Hannah did a great job for a sophomore in a big game like this. Then Zoe came in and shook them up a little bit. I’m really satisfied with our pitching and hitting, and I’m proud of our whole team. I feel like they’re trying to step up and put Zoe on their shoulders. We’ve got a good bunch of kids. I’m proud of our team. Our record doesn’t show how good we really are. We’ll be fine.”
Still, Wheelersburg’s ability to band together and take advantage was a critical part in the outcome.
After another intentional walk to Sturgill in the fifth frame, Addi Collins laid down a rare bunt double that landed in fair territory and rolled toward the left side of the backstop after landing in between three Minford players and deflecting off of a Lady Falcon. When Messer and pitching coach Art Doll made the decision to make a second intentional free pass by walking Claxon, the idea was a good one considering that Minford would have a force play at the plate.
However, the plan backfired in a big way.
After an infield error during Bella Williams’ at-bat allowed Sturgill to score and Collins and Claxon to move up into scoring position, Williams’ sacrifice fly scored Collins as Wheelersburg took a 5-3 advantage with one out on the board. That lead, however, didn’t stop growing as Mallory Bergan followed up Williams’ efforts with a two-run bomb to left center field to cap off a four-run inning for the Lady Pirates as Wheelersburg ultimately finished the fifth inning with a 7-3 lead.
“We’ve shown some good character,” Ruby said. “We were behind going into the seventh inning at Oak Hill, and scored three runs in the final inning to win that game. It’s been a resilient effort from these girls as far as not getting caught up in what the score is, and focusing on what we need to do to get into the game and get ahead in the game. I was really pleased. We started off slow, and we’ve done that in a few games this year, but again, we’re young, and I liked the quality of our at-bats throughout the game, especially with runners in scoring position. That’s how you win ballgames. It’s not really about how many hits you get, it’s about when you get them, and we got some good hits with people on base.”
“It just seems like that’s the pattern in big innings,” Messer said. “When one player hits, everybody starts to hit the ball, and when one player makes an error, the errors kind of pile up. Hat’s off to Wheelersburg. Good luck to them the rest of the season. As for us, I know that we’ll turn things around. We’ve got Adena and Coal Grove (on Saturday). We’re going to get back on track. This team’s too gritty and tough not to. We’ll get it back.”
However, the heart of the Wheelersburg batting order wasn’t done adding onto the lead.
In the sixth frame, Collins — who led the three-through-seven hole hitters by going 2-for-4 with a double and two runs scored — added a huge insurance run as the sophomore launched her own big fly with a moonshot to dead center to cap off the Wheelersburg scoring. The aforementioned quintet ultimately went 5-for-14 for the contest at the plate.
Minford obtained back-to-back doubles from Shoemaker and Wolfenbarker to cut the Lady Pirates’ advantage to an 8-4 count, but got no closer from there.
“Addi’s a good, solid hitter,” Ruby said. “She’s matured a lot this spring. Her bat’s very solid. She does well going with any pitch, and she can hit for power. I’m really pleased with her progression so far.”
With the victory, Wheelersburg, who defeated Harrodsburg (Ky.) Mercer County by a 3-0 tally to move to 9-0 on the year on Saturday, holds firm control over first place in the SOC II realm with the victories over Oak Hill and Minford, and Waverly split its regular season series with Oak Hill already, which has the Lady Pirates one game ahead of Waverly in the conference race and three games ahead of the Lady Oaks and the Lady Falcons with six conference bouts left to go in the regular season.
“Minford’s a quality team,” Ruby said. “Preston coaches his girls very well. Oak Hill’s an excellent and talented team, too. The SOC II is very well-balanced this year, so we know that we’re going to be pushed on any given night. That’s only going to make us better in the long run. I like the fact that we got through two tough opponents. We still got a few more, but it’s been a good week.”
Even though their chances of an SOC II Championship have now fallen on slim hopes with the loss — which dropped Minford to 5-4 overall and 5-3 in the conference. The Lady Falcons, however, rebounded with victories over both Coal Grove and Adena in a strong sign of resiliency on Saturday — which is key considering that Minford still has plenty to play for.
“Our sticks are coming back,” Messer said. “We’re going to get this thing turned back around. If you can’t hit the ball, you’re not going to win. We’re hitting the ball, we’re just hurting ourselves with defensive mistakes. We’re going to get it back. We’ll get back on track.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT