WHEELERSBURG — When it’s time for first pitch in Wheelersburg’s Division III state semifinal versus Sherwood Fairview on Saturday, it won’t be the first occasion in which a Howard has taken the circle for the Lady Pirates at the state tournament.
Nor will it likely be the last.
When Wheelersburg’s softball program made its three consecutive state tournament appearances from 2015 thru 2017, now freshman pitcher AndiJo Howard and several of her current Lady Pirate teammates were seated close to home plate at Akron Firestone Stadium.
Howard and the younger Lady Pirates watched on as her sister, Faith Howard, and Wheelersburg won the program’s first Division III state championship in 2016.
In their tournament run that season, the Lady Pirates outscored their opponents 56-6, including defeating Canfield South Range 8-3 in the state title game.
“They played with all their heart. Kind of like us, we just play for each other,” AndiJo Howard said, of watching her sister’s teams play. “And they wanted to play for our community. Our community gives us a lot and we want to try and give it back to them on the field.”
Since then, Faith Howard has graduated from Northern Kentucky University as a four-year member of the Norse softball program.
When the Lady Pirates have taken the field this postseason, Faith can be found near the Wheelersburg dugout cheering on No. 32 — and the current ‘Burg group playing towards the program’s second state championship.
“One-hundred percent I’m way more nervous watching her play,” Faith Howard said. “It is different because you see things from a different perspective. You see the small things that people do that make a difference in the game.”
Faith appeared in 16 games for the Norse during the 2021 season, was NKU’s recipient of the University Service Award, and was Horizon League All-Academic Softball Team in her senior season.
“It was a positive experience, even though it was somewhat dampened with an injury my sophomore year and my junior year was shortened because of COVID,” Faith said, of playing collegiately. “It was something I had worked my whole life up until that point to be able to do.”
Growing up as the sister of a member of the Wheelersburg softball team inspired AndiJo to work towards the same, and the impression the ‘15, ‘16 and ‘17 teams left on this current group of Lady Pirates remains evident today.
“We talked to the older kids at that time about the kids on the fence and the impression they were making on them,” Wheelersburg coach Teresa Ruby said. “Now you’re seeing it.”
“I started going to lessons with Faith when I was little and always wanted to be just like her. As I’ve grown up, she’s taught me a lot about how to be mentally strong,” AndiJo said. “We work on mechanics, but she tells me mainly to go out, be myself, and give it my all.”
AndiJo is one of seven of this year’s Lady Pirates that were members of the 2018 Little League World Series Championship team, pitching a shutout in their 3-0 win over Pennsylvania in the LLWS title game.
It’s a different stage and a different venue, but Faith believes her sister and her team’s experience will help them plenty in their state tournament run this weekend.
“Composure and experience. She’s (AndiJo) gotten to play on a big stage many times, especially as part of the LLWS team. She’s a lefty and at this age you don’t see too many left-handed hitters,” Faith said, of AndiJo’s strengths. “Her ability to move in and out and keep people guessing.”
In 29 of their 32 innings this postseason, Howard and the Lady Pirates’ defense has given up just five runs combined.
Tuscarawas Valley posted six runs in the first three innings during the regional semifinal, but Howard and her defense settled in — and kept the Lady Trojans hitless for the final four frames.
Defense was also an important part of Wheelersburg’s previous three trips to the state, and is generally something that Faith believes is an important part of being a successful pitcher.
“The better defense you have, the more confidence you have that they’re going to be able to support you. You can go out there and throw fearless, it’s not all on you,” Faith said. “You can rely on them to make the plays they’re supposed to, even the extraordinary plays.”
“We’ve had some very good defensive plays lately. I trust my teammates a lot,” AndiJo said. “I know that if I miss my spot, they’ll have my back. Main thing is throwing strikes and I know they’ll be there to back me up.”
When asked who was the better hitter of the two, both answered immediately with the same response.
“Her (AndiJo), no doubt,” Faith said, quickly. “I think she has more home runs this year than I had in my entire high school career, so I’ll give that one to her.”
In their five tournament games going into state, AndiJo is hitting for an .813 average (13-of-16) with 11 RBI and a team-high four home runs.
Sophomore first baseman Macee Eaton has thrived as the team’s cleanup batter, hitting for a .684 average (13-of-19) with three home runs and a team-best 14 RBI.
“I consider hitting a big part of my game,” AndiJo said. “I think I’ve learned a lot from pitching that helps me at the plate — what the umpire’s calling and where to hit the ball that game.”
Ruby says that although the Howard sisters have differences in their games, including Faith being a right-handed pitcher and AndiJo being a lefty, they do have one important thing in common.
“Jo’s handled it great, she really has. She’s carving her own path. She’s her own pitcher and has a different style than Faith. But what the two have in common is their competitive spirit and their team spirit,” Ruby said. “Both are solid team players — the ‘us’ is more important than the ‘me’ with those two.”
As someone who has experience playing at the highest level of high school softball on more than one occasion, Faith said her advice to her sister’s team going into state is a simple one — stay the course.
“Continue to do what they’re doing and trust the process. They’ve done the same thing all year with a lot of good outcomes,” Faith said. “Usually the team that settles in earliest is the team that succeeds.”
Wheelersburg and Sherwood Fairview will play in a Division III state semifinal at Akron Firestone Stadium on Saturday (June 5) at 10 a.m.
The winner will face the winner of Johnstown-Monroe and Canfield South Range — in the D-III state title game on Sunday (June 6) at 4 p.m.
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved