WHEELERSBURG — It’s simply no secret that the 2021 Wheelersburg High School softball squad is playing with enormous expectations.
Rightly, or wrongly, the buzzfeed for these particular Pirates is that they can reach the pinnacle of state softball in Division III —and that of course is returning home to Wheelersburg with the state championship trophy.
However, it’s also no secret that these exact same Pirates — seniors and underclassmen alike — are playing for a previous state champion, who has and will continue to watch over them from high above.
In fact, and maybe even one better, you need only peek outside the Pirates’ home dugout to know her spirit is not too far away at all.
The Pirates are playing for the memory of Laiken Salyers, a senior member of the 2016 Division III state championship squad, who tragically was killed in an automobile accident in Athens the night after Christmas.
She was just 23 years of age, and was set to graduate in May from Ohio University — with a Bachelor’s Degree in Occupational Hygiene and Safety.
Salyers’ boyfriend, Richard Turner of New Jersey, died in the accident with her.
This season, as her younger sister Sydney Salyers is a freshman while her father Dusty Salyers still assists head coach Teresa Ruby, the current Pirates know of the connection from five years ago — and that keeping Laiken’s legacy alive is of utmost importance.
“It’s been hard, but these girls feel Laiken’s presence is always with us. They are all teammates with Sydney (Salyers) and Dusty (Salyers) is coaching, so they feel that too, but she is always with us,” said Ruby. “These girls now were younger, either in junior high or elementary school, yet they were on the other side of this fence watching one of the most talented teams we’ve ever had in this area. I can remember Sydney running around and always being at these ballgames. They all knew Laiken and all looked up to Laiken.”
A replica of Salyers’ 27 jersey hangs just outside of Wheelersburg’s dugout, and a photograph of her carrying the state championship trophy highlighted by her blue eyes and bright smile still lights up any room to this very day —four months after her passing.
“That (photograph) is one my favorites,” said Ruby. “She was carrying that trophy in and wasn’t going to put it down. And that smile on her face was a classic.”
On the field, Salyers was a key cog in the Pirates’ powerful 2016 machine, playing first base and batting sixth in the lineup.
“She was huge for us. One of the leaders on the team. Probably one of the finest first basemen I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. She hit in the sixth slot for us. That sixth-slot hitter usually comes up a lot of times with two outs but runners on, and I really like that hitting spot to be somebody to come through and be clutch. Laiken was that,” said Ruby. “She could hit for power or base hits. She always put the ball in play and had very few strikeouts.”
But better yet, Ruby said, was “Laiken led by example. The girls all thought a lot of her.”
And, these Pirates — with six seniors including three already officially signed to play collegiate softball — are always thinking about Dusty and Sydney.
“They know how much they (Salyers family) are hurting and playing and coaching through a lot of pain, but they like being together with them and with one another. Support for Sydney is just being here and being around everybody,” said Ruby.
Indeed, Laiken’s legacy lives on in Wheelersburg — and the 2021 Pirates plan to make her most proud, perhaps as much as returning to Gene Bennett Park in early June with another state championship trophy.
“We miss her for sure, but Laiken’s presence is definitely felt each time we are here,” said Ruby.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved