Achieving a standard of excellence, especially at such a young age, is very tough to do.
However, the Wheelersburg 11-12 year-old All-Star softball program, along with their 9-10 year-old All-Star brethren, seemingly produce committed, dedicated, and excellent softball talents like clockwork.
And not surprisingly, because of that talent, the 11-12s again find themselves in a position to challenge the very best in the sport.
But this time around, they won’t have to go nearly as far to do so.
From Saturday through Monday, Wheelersburg will only have to make a short 20-minute drive — and less than 30 miles round trip each day — to play in this year’s version of the Ohio Little League Major Division (12U) State Softball Tournament as the West Portsmouth American Little League will be the host site for all of the contests that will be played at Doc Singleton Park via the famed Boone Coleman Field in West Portsmouth.
And that’s certainly something that Dusty Salyers is quite okay with, especially considering the amount of time that has been put in on simply traveling to the necessary facilities alone.
“It’s a huge goal every year to make the Little League All-Star team, and to compete at the district and state levels,” Salyers said. “To finally be able to play a state tournament in our own district is awesome. We’ve been traveling four to five hours away every year to play games in the state tournament, which is such a burden on the parents as far as trying to get off of work is concerned. Then, you’re staying in a hotel for a week at a time, and you’re eating out at a restaurant along with that. To finally get to play it here in District 11 is great.”
On its way to churning out state championship and Midwest Regional Championship-contending units year after year, the Wheelersburg 9-10s and 11-12s have developed a regular routine that has helped make it one of the best units throughout the state at the Little League ranks. Both programs, whenever they aren’t playing on weekends, practice up to six days a week for two to three hours a day.
“We practice five days a week, Monday through Friday, and we’ll do something every day,” Salyers said. “We don’t do everything on every day. There will be some days where we will go light and just hit. However, the girls are doing something each day for five days out of the week. Then, a lot of the girls take their own personal lessons, whether it be pitching or hitting lessons.”
That work ethic, plus the overall interest in the game of softball around the Wheelersburg community as a whole, has led to a truly special run that has translated to the high school level.
Since Teresa Ruby took over as the head coach of the Lady Pirates’ softball program in 2013, Wheelersburg has been sensational as evidenced by five consecutive trips to the regional tournament in each of Ruby’s first five seasons as head coach. Inside that run are three consecutive trips to the OHSAA State Final Four (2015-17) and a Division III OHSAA State Championship in 2018.
To appropriately put into words how special the run is, this year’s team, which was expected to have a fall off considering that Wheelersburg lost six of its nine starters from its 2017 Division III State Runner-Up unit to graduation, proceeded to win its first 24 games before falling to Lore City Buckeye Trail in the regional semifinals. That team will return six underclassmen in addition to star juniors Christen Risner and Sarah Claxon for 2019, and from there, a stack of excellent feeder talent waits in the wings.
“The girls are eating it up,” Salyers said of the game of softball. “Everybody wants to play. No matter what time you go up to Gene Bennett Park, somebody is always up there playing.”
THEY GOT NEXT
With a slew of players who have already won a litany of games together, the 2018 version of the Wheelersburg 11-12s are no different than the girls that preceded their time on the 11-12 unit.
For starters, there’s AndiJo Howard, who served as Wheelersburg’s ace pitcher on the 2017 iteration of the 11-12s. That group, which won the 12U State Softball Championship last year, advanced to the Little League Central Region Semifinals before falling to Central Iowa. She’s joined by another strong pitching talent in Ashlee Spence, who compliments Howard very well as a right-handed pitching stalwart (Howard is a southpaw).
During their run through their District 11 competition, Howard combined with Spence to throw a no-hitter against South Webster before the pair, in two separate starts against Northwest, combined to hold the Lady Mohawks to just three hits in 13-1 and 15-0 victories, respectively.
“You live and die by your pitching, and to have any kind of success at any level of softball, you have to have good pitching,” Salyers said. “We have two very good pitchers in AndiJo and Ashlee. I feel really comfortable with both of them. AndiJo’s a lefty and Ashlee’s a righty, and they both bring different things to the table, so I feel really good about that.”
However, Wheelersburg’s pitching is far from the only quality that is legitimate, as its offense — which outscored Northwest and South Webster by a 39-1 margin over its three contests in district play — suggests.
Sydney Skiver, during District 11 competition, went 6-for-12 (.500) with three doubles, four triples, six runs scored, and an astonishing 11 RBI in just those three contests alone. Caite Boggs (.808), Haley Myers and Emma Smith (.643 each), and Spence (.640) each posted astronomical batting averages last season with the 9-10s and are well on their way to producing in a similar fashion with the 11-12s as evidenced by three RBI apiece from Boggs and Myers. Sydney Salyers, Maddi Kotcamp, and Rileigh Lane, who, along with Howard and Skiver, was referred to by the elder Salyers as “the leaders of our team,” combined with Howard and Skiver for nine RBI in the District 11-clinching victory over Northwest last Saturday. Then, there’s Jaelin Thomas, Alexis Gilliland, Shelby Hammond, and Mia Mowery, who have all played a critical role for the ‘Burg 11-12s at one point or another.
With all of those aforementioned players, there’s talent, dedication, and experience — as evidenced by the amount of consecutive appearances that each of the players have had at the state level — available in bunches.
“I told the girls, ‘This is something that you should never take for granted, even if you’ve made three or four consecutive trips to the state tournament in a row,’” Salyers said. “There’s a lot of kids that never get to play in any of them. Just because we’ve played in several here doesn’t make it any less special for us, and I believe our girls realize that. They’re truly excited to play in the state tournament, and you could tell that they were locked in from the way that they were playing during the district tournament. They want to play in the state tournament again.”
While Wheelersburg is certainly the cream of the crop, the competition that awaits the Lady Pirates is certainly not to be looked down upon. After all, Tallmadge, Canfield, and Kingsville — the additional state qualifiers at the U12 level — have fed into high schools that have combined for 21 OHSAA State Final Four appearances.
“We’re pretty familiar with Tallmadge,” Salyers said. “I think we’ve played Tallmadge about six times over the last four years, so we know their coaches and players pretty well. We basically have a scouting report on them and what they do because we’ve played them so many times. I’ve seen Canfield play. I’m not for sure, but I think that’s going to be a pretty young team. They’re going to be a good team, but a little bit younger than both of us. As for Kingsville, I don’t know much about them. They’re really the team nobody knows a whole lot about.”
SCHEDULE for Ohio Little League Major Division (12U) State Softball Tournament (Double Elimination Tournament):
Game 1, 11 a.m. — Kingsville vs. Canfield
Game 2, 1 p.m. — Tallmadge vs. Wheelersburg
Game 3, 11 a.m. — Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2
Game 4, 1 p.m. — Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2
Game 5, 3 p.m. — Loser of Game 3 vs. Winner of Game 4
Game 6, 10 a.m. — Championship Game (Winner of Game 3 vs. Winner of Game 5)
Game 7, if necessary, 12 p.m. (only if Winner of Game 5 defeats Winner of Game 3 in first title battle)*
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT