CHILLICOTHE — With the Valley Indians’ baseball program and the Wheelersburg Pirates’ baseball program, what you see is what you get.
And what everybody typically sees out of both ballclubs are two gritty, well-coached units who are proud of their traditions but yet don’t rest on their past laurels on a year-after-year basis.
For the past 10 seasons, however, it was the Wheelersburg Pirates who had the stranglehold on the Division III Southeast District realm. Since 2008, Wheelersburg had advanced to regional competition in each and every season in a historical run that was arguably the best to date by any Southeast District unit leading up to Friday’s primo matchup between two fierce rivals.
But in one of the great high school baseball contests that one could ever hope to watch, the Valley Indians broke that stranglehold in an amazing 11-inning contest that had Nolan Crabtree’s unit squarely in the center of the conversation.
In a battle that personified not only the great depth that the SOC II has as a conference, but the greatness inside each of the players that took part in the thrilling 11-inning battle of wills, it was a senior, in fitting form, who made the difference.
Tucker Williams, who came on in relief of Tanner Cunningham after the latter threw nine-and-a-third innings of brilliant baseball, took matters into his own hands by shooting a two-out single into the outfield, which scored Austin McIntosh from second base as the Indians took a 2-1 advantage in the top of the 11th inning. Williams then survived a leadoff double from Connor Mullins and a walk to seal the deal and send Valley to the Division III, Chillicothe II District Finals on Saturday afternoon in a 2-1 thriller at VA Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe.
But while the outcome may have been a surprise to some, the Indians knew what they had all along. After all, Crabtree’s bunch defeated Wheelersburg, 9-5, in Wheelersburg on April 25 before falling by a scant 3-1 tally two days later in Lucasville.
“We battled Wheelersburg in two great baseball games this season,” Crabtree said. “ I had two great pitchers (in Tanner Cunningham and Tucker Williams) who just worked their tails off and were amazing both times against them, and I told them today that I was undecided up until about 4 p.m. who I was starting tonight. I went with Tanner, but I told both of them, ‘I’m going to need you both.’ I just had a feeling. The absolute pride, effort, and how our team came up big in the way that they did is something that I can’t say enough about. (Michael) Estep and his program have been the class of Southern Ohio baseball, and to go out there and play 25 innings against them this year and compete our tails off feels amazing. It’s just amazing.”
While the loss ended an incredible 10-year run that, without question, cemented Estep’s legacy as one of the greatest coaching minds in the game, the veteran leader of Wheelersburg’s unit was humble in defeat.
“It was a good ballgame,” Estep said. “Hat’s off to Valley. They did exactly what they needed to do to win the game. Both teams took punches from each other and put runners on base, and man, hat’s off to the pitchers that played today as well, especially Trey and Tanner Cunningham. They all competed at a high level. Multiple times, there were runners in position to score with just one base hit, and they’d find a way to get out of the jams. Valley was passionate about winning over there, and we knew that they would be. They found a way to win.”
Throughout the contest, both units, who threw their primary starters to begin the bout, got outstanding efforts from their starting hands as Valley’s Tanner Cunningham and Wheelersburg’s Trey Carter engaged in arguably the best pitching duel that the hallowed grounds of the VA has seen yet — which is saying something considering that each of the four Division III District Semifinal games were decided by one run apiece with the winning team scoring no more than four runs in each of the four contests.
Cunningham and Carter, who each will be returning next season to head up strong pitching staffs, threw nine-and-one-third and 10 full innings, respectively, and could’ve gone further if not for hitting the pitch limits for the contest. Cunningham allowed just three hits and struck out three, while Carter — who obtained each of the three hits for Wheelersburg against Cunningham — struck out eight batters and gave up only five hits in all.
“Tanner was fabulous,” Crabtree said. “That kid right there is something. He was a starter for us as a freshman, and threw a big game for us in the district semifinals against Alexander that night. I’m going to tell you something: that kid has grown up and is a ballplayer. He went out there tonight, and was just a man on the mound. It was amazing. I’ve got to tip the cap to Wheelersburg, also. Trey Carter, my goodness. You want to talk about two lefties that are battling? I can’t say enough about what that game was like. It was amazing to be a part of. I never have had so much fun coaching a baseball game. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was loving it. It was great. I’m so proud of this baseball team.”
“Trey was 7-0 coming into the game, and that’s where it stays,” Estep said. “I feel like he’s gotten better through the season. He had the game at Minford (9-8 loss), where we swing the bats enough to stay in that game to the final pitch, but from there on, he was outstanding and definitely established himself as a clear-cut No. 1 on our team. He pitched like it again today. I wish that we would’ve found a way to plate a run across there for him, because he certainly gutted it out there, and I’m really proud of him.”
In the top of the fourth inning, Cole Dyer, who was walked to begin the frame, advanced to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on a groundout, and scored on a second wild pitch to put Wheelersburg in front with the initial salvo.
However, the Pirates only mustered two additional baserunners across the remainder of the regulation innings, and in the top of the sixth inning, a leadoff double by Andrew Andronis, a sacrifice bunt by Jared Morrow, and a sacrifice fly RBI by Cunningham to center field allowed Andronis to slide in safely at home plate and tie the score at one apiece.
“I’m at a loss for words right now because it’s such an emotional high,” Crabtree said. “That was the grittiest and guttiest performance that I have seen from our baseball team. The big plays were unbelievable.”
In the top of the seventh frame, Valley attempted to strike again as Jake Ashkettle led off the top half of the seventh with a base hit.
However, the junior was gunned down trying to steal, and despite a pair of free passes by Kayden Mollette and Cayton Ruby, the Indians were held in check thanks to Carter and a Wheelersburg defense that didn’t commit a single error over the first 10 innings of play.
“It’s why you take groundballs and practice those situations that were live (on Friday),” Estep said. “It’s hard to simulate those moments. We try to work on making those plays and try to run those guys down the baselines in practices and things so that we can create as much gamelike environment as we can. We do that with our guys, and over the years, they’ve made a lot of plays. We made some today, but offensively, we couldn’t find a way to get it done.”
During the eighth and ninth innings of action, Wheelersburg threatened to end the game in both frames as Carter singled to lead off the former frame and advanced to second on an outfield error, while Xander Carmichael walked to put the leadoff runner on base in both frames. However, Carter was gunned down on an excellent throw from Andronis on what appeared to be a failed hit-and-run attempt, while Carmichael, who took off from first base to third base on an Evan Dahm flyout to center field, ultimately dealt with a similar fate behind an 8-1 double play that sent the game to double-digit frames.
“That’s maturity,” Crabtree said of his team’s poise defensively. “That’s growing up and having confidence. For the last two-and-a-half, three weeks of the season, we’ve been a darn good baseball team. We’ve been playing some really good baseball. We finally had guys that grew up and realized how good they can be as a team.”
After a scoreless 10th where both teams put a runner on but couldn’t move said runner past first base, Cunningham started off the top of the 11th with a bang by notching a single off of Mullins. But when the junior was also caught trying to steal, the Indians’ chances to add a run looked bleak again.
That, however, began to change in the same frame, when Jesse Jones launched a two-out double into the right field gap, and when an infield error allowed Ashkettle to reach, it was Tucker Williams’ turn to come up large.
The senior, who overcame struggles with injury during the offseason and earlier in the year to give up just one hit in two innings of relief work on Friday evening, notched the gamebreaking hit with his single to the outfield, which scored McIntosh — who was courtesy running for Jones — easily as the Indians took the 2-1 advantage heading into the bottom of the 11th. Mullins tried to salvage his own relief effort by shooting a double to left field and Carmichael drew another walk with one down, but a flyout, a strikeout, and a 6-4 groundout around those efforts allowed Williams to capture the game-winning hit and the decision on the hill.
“Tucker’s been a leader for us this entire year,” Crabtree said. “Everything that we have ever needed, he does it for us. He’s pushed the guys that were good enough, but just didn’t believe yet, to do that. He just picked guys up and has been like an extra coach for us. It’s only fitting that he came up with the big hit and he came up with the outs that he needed to. It was just an amazing team effort.”
With the victory, Valley will play South Point — who came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat Adena, 4-3 — on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the Division III, Chillicothe II District Finals at the VA. The trip to the district finals is the second for Valley in three seasons, but a win would mean the first trip to a regional tournament since 2012, when the Indians were slotted in Division IV and when star pitcher Patrick Riehl, who is currently in the Cincinnati Reds organization, was a senior in high school.
“I told our boys, ‘Love it tonight, because at midnight, we start over,’” Crabtree said. “We’ve got to come back here tomorrow against one of these two good baseball teams and do what we’ve got to do.”
As for Wheelersburg, the loss means that the Pirates won’t be advancing to the Division III, Region 11 Tournament for the first time since 2007, when the Pirates fell to Zane Trace by a 1-0 tally — back when the Division III District Tournaments were played at Jackson and Northwest.
Still, the loss doesn’t taking anything away from what Dyer, Carmichael, Jaydren Guthrie, and Matt Marshall have accomplished across their four-year careers in the program.
“Each and every group that leaves is special,” Estep said. I’m getting texts and messages from some of the former players today saying, ‘Good luck,’ and they’re always following in tournament play. They’re always following during tournament play from afar. When you hang around long enough, there’s a lot of kids that come and go, but those relationships never die, and that’s the beauty of this game. Anytime a senior class graduates, you always hate to see them depart, but the memories that they leave behind never fade away.”