PORTSMOUTH — Rylie Hughes has traveled the state, and the country, playing the sport she loves.
However, with her softball background including travel teams and two high school clubs, it’s time for the Wheelersburg High School senior standout to settle down —and call a college home for four years.
Hughes has made that decision official, as last week —alongside fellow Lady Pirates Laney Eller and Boo Sturgill —she publicly announced and put pen to paper, inking with the University of Charleston in nearby Charleston, W. Va.
Hughes— at her socially-distant signing ceremony inside the Scioto County Welcome Center in Portsmouth — signed her national Letter-of-Intent in front of family, friends and Lady Pirate teammates which were able to attend.
As Charleston is a private NCAA Division II program which competes in the Mountain East Conference, all three Lady Pirates are becoming Lady Eagles — as Hughes is indeed a Golden Eagle, as per the official UC mascot.
Sturgill signed with Carson-Newman University and Eller at Ashland University, which are also Division II schools.
Hughes, in an interview at her signing, said she initially had aspirations of playing at larger institutions.
But one simple visit to the West Virginia state capital convinced her otherwise.
“When I was younger, I was always looking at big schools. Then I got asked to go on a visit to Charleston. When I got there, the campus was small, but it was just so beautiful. I really loved that visit,” said Hughes. “The coach made me feel so welcome. It’s a good environment for sure.”
Hughes is indeed going from one good environment to another, and will play third base again this upcoming campaign under Wheelersburg head coach Teresa Ruby—prior to playing the hot corner and even first base for head coach Kimberly Stiles.
Stiles, in 2021, will begin her fifth season as head coach —as she has over 200 career coaching victories.
In her first year, she guided the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Division II tournament for the third time in four springs —and despite a 2020 coronavirus-shortened season, UC went 14-2 and was ranked 23rd nationally in the final NFCA Division II poll.
That 14-2 beginning was the best start in program history.
Wheelersburg, of course, has its own rich softball tradition which includes the 2016 Division III state championship—as Hughes, who transferred from Oak Hill following her freshman season, was part of a 21-3 club and the 2019 Division III district runner-up.
She batted .500 with an on-base percentage of .621 and a slugging percentage of .955 —a hitting machine with 15 singles, 12 doubles, 40 runs batted in, 29 runs scored and a half-dozen home runs.
She was also walked 18 times —a high number as teams tried to pitch around her.
That followed her freshman season with the Lady Oaks — in which she powered for a .589 batting average, a whopping 1.033 slugging percentage, and 10 home runs with 39 runs driven in.
She also conked 13 doubles and three triples, and scored 36 runs.
In both instances, Hughes captured all-Southeast District Division III first-team honors —and was an Honorable Mention all-Ohioan as a sophomore.
Hughes said the transfer from Oak Hill to Wheelersburg was a welcome change.
“When I got here, everybody here made me feel so welcome. I finally felt like I was home. All the coaches and the girls made the transition so easy for me. When we started playing games, it was so much fun,” she said. “I just felt I finally belonged here.”
It’s just a shame that last season didn’t happen —for who knows how Hughes would have only improved and the Lady Pirates possibly played for a state championship.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association then cancelled the entire 2020 season in response to the coronavirus threat.
“We were told before our first scrimmage against Ironton in March we weren’t going to be playing anymore until April, then the OHSAA cancelled it completely. It was heartbreaking. Especially watching the seniors we were supposed to be playing with, and us knowing it was going to be a big year for us,” said Hughes. “It was very disappointing.”
However, Hughes has taken that disappointment and — instead of being bitter about a lost season —turned it into motivation for a stellar senior year.
Both individually and collectively.
“A lot of us haven’t stopped working. We have a LOT that we want to do this year. We want to make it back to state, and we plan to do everything in our power to make it back,” she said. “For me, I’ve been working very hard because I’ve never made it far in the high school tournament. At Oak Hill, we lost early and unfortunately my sophomore year we lost the district championship game. We were told last year we were probably going to make it back to state, and then the season got canceled. I’ve been doing everything I can to help our team. I’m hoping we play and it’s going to be good for us.”
Ruby concurred, as she will have coached Hughes for two seasons —should softball in 2021 indeed take place.
“They had a bad taste in their mouths for the way the season ended two years ago (2019). We came into last season really driven with a lot of energy, but the COVID took all of that away. So I expect this year for us to be very focused, and we have a strong group of young ladies playing this year,” said the coach.
Hughes is one of those, as she said her pursuit of a career in Pharmacy aided in her decision to choose Charleston.
She is overjoyed at having her signing completed prior to her senior year.
“To have this signing completed is so nice. And it’s nice to go somewhere where you feel like you are home,” said Hughes.
For Hughes, home has been all around the state — or even the entire country — playing the sport she lives.
But soon, she’ll settle down as a Golden Eagle —not too far from home where her family can continue to watch her games.
“My coaches, my teammates and my friends helped me make the transition, and my mother (Ashley Paulins) and stepfather (Jason Potter) never missed a single game. I mean I played softball everywhere, and they’ve both been to every tournament every year,” she said.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved