CHILLICOTHE — Pirates are always on a quest for gold.
For the Wheelersburg High School softball squad, on Saturday at Unioto High School, these particular band of Pirates picked up what they hope is the first of their three Ohio High School Athletic Association gold championship trophies.
And, at the Southeast District level, they get gold medals for winning the championship — which will look even better around their necks assuming they can win some gold rings come the first weekend in June.
That’s because the Pirates, one of the most highly-touted teams in Division III, captured another Southeast District championship — scoring seven third-inning runs en route to rolling Wellston by a count of 10-2.
As Andi Jo Howard hurled another complete-game gem in the pitching circle, the Pirate defense — in particular senior second baseman Boo Sturgill — did its job in not committing a single solitary error.
At the plate, the highly-potent Pirate offense picked up from where it left off —once again scoring double digits in runs by cranking out 11 hits, taking advantage of three Golden Rocket errors, and exploding for a seven-run third inning that made it 8-0 and put the contest out of reach.
When Sturgill’s shot to centerfield in the fourth resulted in two unearned runs coming in on an error to make it 10-1, Wheelersburg fans could certainly start to celebrate — with the mercy rule almost in effect although never reached.
Still, the entire goal of the postseason is about winning and chasing down gold championship trophies, and for Sturgill and her five fellow Pirate seniors, they checked the district hardware off the list.
“I knew I really wanted to get this gold medal,” said Sturgill, with excitement. “We had a really tough loss here a couple of years ago, so we were ready today.”
That loss she referenced was Wheelersburg’s most recent appearance in the district final before Saturday —against Leesburg Fairfield two years ago.
With the OHSAA canceling all spring sports seasons last year, it’s been a two-year wait for Sturgill, the Pirate upperclassmen, and head coach Teresa Ruby.
“When you lose, it always leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But when you have to wait two years to get another chance to get back and do it, it’s even worse,” said Ruby, with a slight laugh. “Our seniors have earned this opportunity and we are looking forward to moving on to the next round.”
Wheelersburg, being the top-seeded club in the entire Southeast District Division III tournament, won for the 24th time in 25 games this year —and claimed a district championship for the eight time in program history.
The loss to Fairfield snapped a streak of five consecutive (2014 thru 2018) district titles —with the others coming in 2007 and 2009.
Of course, Wheelersburg won the state championship five years ago (2016) —as these Pirates are quite equipped to bring home another such trophy this spring.
Wheelersburg’s bats get the majority of the attention, and rightfully so, having hit over 40 home runs as a team — but it was the defense and Howard’s pitching which jump-started it against sixth-seeded Wellston, which won the outright Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division championship and finished its season at 20-7.
Howard retired the Golden Rockets 1-2-3 in the second and third frames, and stranded eight runners —including two apiece in the first, fourth and fifth.
She scattered nine hits and walked a pair with Wellston scoring earned runs in innings two and seven, but struck out five and did not hit a batter.
“I was worried because she (Howard) still is getting acclimated to the hot weather, but I thought she threw very well today,” said Ruby. “She worked the plate and worked the corners, and I was pleased with her performance.”
Sturgill, the shortstop switched to second base this season with the season-ending injury to standout and fellow senior Laney Eller, simply enjoyed her best defensive game.
Whether it was catching popups or hard screaming lineouts directly at her, she recorded at least one putout through the opening six stanzas —including on a nicely-turned 4-6 double play in the fifth, followed by covering the first-base bag on a bunt in the sixth.
“This is definitely my best game defensively. My bat wasn’t what I needed it to be in the beginning, so I knew I had to do something to back up Andi Jo. She is my freshman pitcher, and we need to get behind her any way that way we can. I was just trying to make as many plays as I could for her,” said Sturgill. “I just had to zone in and concentrate.”
“Boo had a really good game and made some really nice plays at second base. She has really adapted well to moving to that side of the infield. Her skill level fits it well,” said Ruby. “She takes away some base hits from people.”
That she did, and with Wheelersburg dominating defensively, the offense eventually opened its floodgates on a hot and humid Saturday in Chillicothe.
Rylie Hughes singled and Macee Eaton doubled with two outs in the Pirates’ initial at-bat, but ‘Burg scored first in the second —when Howard helped herself on an infield hit, her courtesy runner Sydney Salyers advanced to second on Kiera Kennard’s sacrifice bunt, and then Salyers scored on a Brynley Preston single to left.
In the third, the Pirates sent a dozen batters to the dish between two Golden Rocket pitchers —and amounted seven runs on five hits with Wellston making two errors.
Hughes and Eaton singled to lead off the inning, then Kennard clubbed a double to center to score both — as Salyers scored to make it 4-2 when Wellston made its first error of the game.
Two more runs, one by Kennard and the other by Jaelin Thomas, crossed on two wild pitches —before Madison Potts replaced Rocket starter Kamryn Karr in the circle.
Rileigh Lang, who was hit by a Karr pitch in the first, then drew a Potts walk —as Sturgill singled to center and another error kept the at-bat ongoing.
The Pirates made the Golden Rockets pay, as Eaton doubled deep to left center —scoring Lang and Sturgill and making it 8-0.
“It’s an explosive offense, and I feel strong about it being one thru nine…it can start anywhere,” said Ruby. “We don’t have to always depend on the top of our order to get things started. It was the same thing today. That bottom half really got things going in the second. When you get the bottom of the order contributing, you get big innings because you come around to the top and it’s just an explosive group.”
Finally, in the fourth, Howard and Kennard led off with singles —as Sturgill’s two-out at-bat brought Salyers and Kennard in to make it 10-1.
The only other Wheelersburg baserunner from there was Sydney Skiver, who was walked by Faith Stevens in the fifth.
Jenna Johnston paced Wellston with three hits and only a home run shy of the cycle —as she singled for Wellston’s first baseknock, tripled to right to lead off the fourth and scored on a Sadie Henry infield hit, and doubled to right in the seventh to score Neveah Ousley.
Wellston will graduate just second baseman Makenna Kilgour, but settled for silver on Saturday — as the Pirates, playing their game and being themselves, pushed forward to Wednesday’s regional semifinals.
“At this point, all the teams you’re going to play will be solid competition. But we just keeping talking about the things that we need to do and what we know we can do and be us. Just be us, and not worry about trying to change to do something else,” said Ruby. “That’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Wheelersburg will be right back at Unioto, and will face off against East District champion Tuscarawas Valley.
First pitch is set for 5 p.m. — with the other regional semifinal set for 2 p.m. between Ironton and Westfall.
The regional championship, and a berth in the Division III state tournament, is set for Saturday (May 29) at high noon.
For the Pirates, the quest for more solid gold goes on.
“Just chasing a gold ring,” said Sturgill.
* * *
Wellston 00 100 1 —2 9 0
Wheelersburg 017 200 X —10 11 3
Wellston: Kamryn Karr 2 1/3 IP, 6R, 4ER, 7H, 1HB, 1BB, 3K, 17BF; Madison Potts 1 2/3IP, 4R, 0ER, 4H, 0HB, 1BB, 0K, 12BF; Faith Stevens 2IP, 0R, 0ER, 0H, 0HB, 1BB, 1K, 7BF
Wheelersburg: Andi Jo Howard 7IP, 2R, 2ER, 9H, 31BF, 0HB, 2BB, 5K, 1BF
W — Andi Jo Howard; L —Kamryn Karr
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