WHEELERSBURG — When the game is on the line, a coach always hopes that his or her players with the main overall experience on the roster will step up and lead the unit when the difference between a win or a loss depends on the shoulders of those experienced hands.
On Tuesday evening, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ softball program got that very performance, yet again, from one of its main catalysts.
With one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Boo Sturgill on second base with the game tied at two apiece, Sarah Claxon didn’t disappoint. The designated player launched a Hannah Robinson pitch into the outfield, which landed six inches to the left of the left field foul line, and Sturgill, with her speed, scored easily as Claxon’s lone hit of the contest proved to be the hit that Wheelersburg needed to sew up its fifth consecutive SOC II title in outright fashion via a 3-2 victory over the Waverly Tigers’ softball program.
For Teresa Ruby, the fifth-year head coach of the Lady Pirates couldn’t have asked for much more, especially in the mental toughness category.
“It was a heck of a game,” Ruby said. “I believe that both teams kept punching and counterpunching. I’m just really proud of my young kids. We showed our youthfulness in the beginning, and being maybe too hyped up. We weren’t putting the ball in play and doing the fundamental things that we’ve been doing so well. However, the girls got their feet underneath them. I’m just proud. I’m so proud of them.”
However, while Claxon’s walkoff hit proved to be the play that won the contest and sealed Wheelersburg’s fifth consecutive SOC II Championship, the pitching performance that Sydney Spence put together in the circle was arguably the biggest key in the end result.
While the Wheelersburg offense was held well in check by Waverly starting hand Hailey Robinson throughout the first four innings of play, Spence dueled back and forth with Robinson and showed no signs of relent. Overall, the promising sophomore struck out eight batters and allowed just two hits through her first five innings of work as the talented youngster kept the game at a scoreless tie.
“Sydney’s really matured this year,” Ruby said. “Coming into the season, we didn’t know that we’d have to count on her as much as we would. We had Sarah’s injury, and I believe, as a team overall now, we’ve got a great one-two punch in the circle. Sydney pitched a tremendous game today. She showed a lot of maturity.”
During that time, however, Spence also, once again, was aided by a sound and crisp Wheelersburg defense that only committed one error on the evening. Senior catcher Mia Darnell made the biggest statement of the unit in the fourth inning by moving 15 feet to her right, diving, and making a splendid catch on a popup in foul territory to claim a huge second out with a runner on first base.
“Mia had a couple of great catches on the move,” Ruby said. “She’s been rock solid for us this year. She’s been that leader and has provided that leadership that we were looking for before the season began. We lost so much great leadership last year, and were just wondering who was going to be that leader. Mia has certainly stepped up, played that role, and has given us solid at-bats. She’s a backstop on her own at the catching position.”
In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Lady Pirates broke through by getting on the scoreboard first. A walk by Bella Williams was followed by a high fly ball into shallow left field by Laney Eller, and even though Eller’s high fly ball was catchable toward the third base side, no Waverly hand was able to get a hand on the ball.
While courtesy runner Alex Glockner looked to be caught in a rundown, an outfield error on the same sequence compounded the problem in a big way for the Lady Tigers as the high throw to second allowed both Glockner and Eller to score as Wheelersburg claimed a 2-0 lead after five innings of play.
“When you get in games like this, it sometimes comes down to an error or a hit that finds a hole before things start to open up,” Ruby said. “We had two teams battling tooth-and-nail, with great pitching on both sides, and sometimes, it really does come down to a bloop here or a misplayed ball there. That really makes a difference in a game like this.”
That lead, however, only lasted for a matter of about five minutes.
After a free pass to Zoiee Smith to start the top of the sixth inning, Hannah Robinson cranked a Spence pitch over the right field fence for a two-run homer to tie the score with one swing of the bat.
But in a situation that normally would break a pitcher down, Spence battled through the adverse circumstances.
With the two runs already in and nobody out, the sophomore retired three of the next four batters that she faced to get out of the inning in such a seamless manner that one would think Spence was a seasoned senior hand, not a first-year starting pitcher.
”She didn’t wear things for several innings or several outs, and that was big,” Ruby said of Spence. “She came back after that home run, retired the rest of the batters in the sixth inning, and got out of the frame to still give us a chance to win the game. She pitched a whale of a game.”
After failing to score despite loading the bases in the bottom of the seventh inning with just one down on back-to-back singles by Williams and Eller, along with an intentional walk to Darnell, Spence, again, had to overcome major adversity as a base hit by Hannah Robinson, along with a sacrifice bunt and an error, had Waverly in a position to take the lead with runners at the corners and nobody out. However, after a visit to the circle by Ruby, Spence responded to that adversity by not only striking out Maddy Murray, but Jessa Evans in order to prevent the Lady Tigers from taking the lead in a crucial sequence.
When Sturgill collected her leadoff single back up the middle of the field in the bottom of the eighth inning, a 1-3 groundout by Addi Collins moved Sturgill up, giving the Lady Pirates a chance to win the game with just one hit to the outfield. Sure enough, Claxon stepped up and did the job by going with a pitch from relief pitcher Hannah Robinson and depositing it to right field for the game-winning base knock.
“Sarah’s one of the kids that came back from last year with some experience,” Ruby said. “She just took the pitch and went with it, which is what we preach. She took the pitch where it was, and it found a hole. It was good to see her step up, and maybe that’ll help her confidence a little bit.”
With all that Wheelersburg lost last season — two Division I signees and six seniors from a class that contributed to three consecutive OHSAA Final Four appearances — it’s hard to believe that the Lady Pirates are a perfect 18-0 and 12-0 in SOC II action. However, that’s exactly where Wheelersburg sits.
But while it even surprise the knowledgeable veteran, Ruby knows that the day-by-day process cannot be interrupted in any form. A Wednesday contest against Valley, along with a rematch with Waverly on Thursday and the season-finale against Ashland (Ky.) are all tough bouts that await the Lady Pirates.
“I keep pinching myself,” Ruby said. “We’re just trying to focus on every single game and not get caught up in all of that. We started the season with the saying, ‘Start unknown, finish unforgettable,’ and the girls have been doing that. We just want to look back on this day and say, ‘Are we better?’ Every single day, they’ve shown a maturity in the things that they are doing, and their energy and excitement has just been a pleasure to be around. It really has been.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT