WHEELERSBURG — They say that all things, whether good or bad, must come to an end.
For the Wheelersburg Pirates, as their incredible softball season comes to an end with the coveted state tournament this weekend, it might as well go out with a bang —and ultimately a ring.
And hey, it’s happened before, so why not have it happen again.
That’s because the Pirates, for the fourth time in school history — and for the first time since their first three state semifinal appearances in three consecutive seasons of 2015, 2016 and 2017 — are back in the Division III Final Four, as the Pirates play Sherwood Fairview in the semifinals for a matinee.
Welcome Wheelersburg back to the truest of statewide stages —as the Pirates play the fellow 26-1 Apaches, as first pitch is set for Friday at 12:30 p.m. inside Akron’s fantastic Firestone Stadium.
The University of Akron is indeed familiar territory for the Pirate program, which won the Division III state championship just five years ago —before returning to the final the following year, and finishing as the runner-up.
At that time, several players on this year’s squad had a front row Firestone Stadium seat —watching those three Pirate clubs do their thing, and hunt down more gold.
Now, it’s their turn.
“I really don’t have any words to describe this feeling, because it’s the most exciting thing ever,” said senior second baseman Boo Sturgill. “I’ve never been to state, but this is just so exciting and I have a lot of faith in my team and I’m ready and we’re ready.”
“When we were handed the regional championship trophy, it was the best feeling knowing we were going to Akron and playing in the Final Four,” added senior third baseman Rylie Hughes. “Coach (Teresa) Ruby always just tells us three outs an inning. That’s what has got us this far. Control our emotions, just breathe and keep teams to three outs an inning.”
With an ACL injury to fellow senior and standout shortstop Laney Eller, coupled with the Ohio High School Athletic Association cancelling the entire 2020 season because of the coronavirus threat, Sturgill and Hughes have been —since day one of 2021 —the two Pirates with ANY significant varsity experience.
But it sure didn’t take long for a roster loaded up on sophomores and freshmen to come of age — and help lead Wheelersburg to another outright and undefeated Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship.
It then only continued for the Pirates in the postseason, as they have outscored their five opponents by a whopping 61-11 —and only scoring fewer than 10 runs in any tournament tilt in their 9-1 victory over Ironton in the Region 11 championship game.
“I think offensively, we have the best hitting team in the state. Our offense is amazing,” said Sturgill. “I don’t think that there is one, one thru nine, that you could say is an easy out. One thru nine is completely solid.”
Hughes hailed even, “we don’t have a weak spot in our lineup.”
It would be hard to argue that point.
They have hit around 50 home runs for the entire season, and Andi Jo Howard —even as a freshman —has had her way in the pitcher’s circle.
That, and with an altered and improved infield as the season has progressed, the Pirates —probably perhaps surely —are playing their best softball of the entire spring.
“We’ve had to move some people around because we’ve had numerous injuries this year. Only one kid on this team, that would be (catcher) Brynley Preston, who hasn’t had to deal with an injury. But we’ve had Haley Myers step up huge for us at shortstop, and we’ve seen Andi Jo (Howard) develop so well. She certainly is not the same pitcher she was the first of the year,” said Wheelersburg coach Teresa Ruby. “The team has done nicely, and you want your team to mature and get better and be playing their best ball at this time of the season. I believe we’ve done that and are at that point right now. This is some of the best ball we’ve played all year.”
Sturgill said, though, that Wheelersburg’s best attribute is its “sisterhood”.
In other words, years in school matter not, but chemistry indeed does.
“This team is very special. It’s a very good atmosphere where we are always picking each other up and are always there for each other. On and off the field we have good relationships with each other. I think that helps a lot too. Coming to softball practice, playing games almost every day during the regular season, it wasn’t like a chore. It’s been a lot of fun and everybody wants to be here. The heart and love for the game is there with all of our players,” she said. “I really have a lot of respect for the younger girls, because they have stepped in and stepped right up and didn’t think twice.”
Sturgill continued that the traditional, sometimes detrimental, ”gap” between seniors and underclassmen is non-existent with this group.
Her hitting partner is a sophomore, while Hughes has a freshman for a batting practice mate.
Of the underclassmen on the roster, seven of them — Sydney Salyers, Mia Mowery, Rileigh Lang, Haley Myers, Jaelin Thomas, Sydney Skiver and Howard —were part of the 2018 Little League Softball World Series Championship team.
“The kids are invested in it and enjoy the game. They respect the history of our program, and are excited about being a part of it. We’re a young team, but a lot of these girls have played in a lot of big games already in travel ball and the World Series,” said Ruby. “They’ve always seem to have risen to the occasion. Hopefully, that happens again on Friday.”
“The freshmen are just as close to me as my senior teammates. We don’t even think about grade levels. We’re just one and we’re ready,” said Sturgill.
Ready for the state semifinals against the Apaches, and ready for either Johnstown-Monroe or Canfield South Range in the state title tilt — if they are victorious on Friday.
But, not ready for it to officially end — whether it climaxes with a state championship or not.
“It’s been so much fun. There’s no words to explain how fun it’s been,” said Hughes. “I know we’re not ready for it to end.”
Although, it’s going to —so it might as well end with bringing back home another gold trophy.
“We’re pumped,” said Hughes. “We know we have a job to do, so we’re prepared to go and get that job done.”
“Coach Ruby always tells us to be us. If we be us, we’ll be fine,” added Sturgill.
“We just need to continue to do what we’ve been doing. We talk about it a lot, but only give teams three outs an inning and not any extra opportunities,” said Ruby. “Be solid on defense, and have quality at-bats every time. We’re thrilled to be one of the final four teams in the state, but obviously we want to go and bring home the gold. The season is going to be over on Saturday night, but we hope to make the most of it while we’re there.”
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