AKRON — The prevailing thought all week was that the Fairview Apaches, although making their first-ever state softball tournament appearance compared to Wheelersburg’s fifth all-time, were a mere mirror image of the powerhouse-hitting Pirates.
Unfortunately for Wheelersburg, that mirror — and armor — cracked on Saturday in more ways than one.
However, there wasn’t any tomorrow to repair, repeal or replace the damage done — as the Pirates’ outstanding 2021 season came to a tearful end.
That’s because the Apaches amassed 15 hits, held the potent Pirates to only seven, and scored in every at-bat sans their fourth en route to a two-hour 10-8 victory over Wheelersburg in front of 3,000 sunbaked fans inside Akron’s fantastic Firestone Stadium.
Both Division III clubs entered the contest at 26-1, and were perceived to be strong hitting units, but Wheelersburg was held by Apache pitcher Paige Ricica to only four hits following Boo Sturgill’s two-out two-run second-inning home run — one of those being a Sydney Skiver seventh-stanza solo shot to get Wheelersburg within 10-8.
With one out, and following Skiver’s home run, Ricica walked her pitching counterpart Andi Jo Howard for the second time —thus putting the tying run at the plate.
But Ricica roared back to record the final two Pirate outs, ending Wheelersburg’s season in the state semifinals for the just the second time all-time — with the other occurring in 2015.
Wheelersburg was the Division III runner-up in 2004 and in 2017, and captured the Division III state championship in 2016 —with seven of its underclassmen on the 2021 club consisting of members of the 2018 Little League Softball World Series championship team.
But, the Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament of course is a single-game format —and what Wheelersburg did to so many teams all season, the Pirates had done unto them by the Apaches.
The Orange and Black’s only other loss was an 8-5 affair against Boyle County (Ky.), as it trailed for only the fourth time all season in 27 games — and gave up just 10 runs for only the second time.
The other instance was a 14-10 win over South Webster on April 15.
On Saturday, in between Sturgill’s blast beyond the left-field fence which put Wheelersburg up 4-1 and Skiver’s home run which gave the Pirates some short-lived life in the last, Ricica only allowed three fourth-inning hits which resulted in three Wheelersburg runs —and a 7-7 tie.
And, one of those was a Rileigh Lang bunt single which scored Sydney Salyers —the courtesy runner for Howard, who doubled to lead off the inning.
Ricica retired the side 1-2-3 in the third —and the only Wheelersburg baserunners following the fourth were on an error and a walk to Howard in the fifth, the Apaches’ fifth error of the game in the sixth, and Skiver and Howard back-to-back in the seventh.
In holding the high-powered Pirates to only seven hits and four earned runs, Ricica struck out three —and induced several pop-ups or flyouts for outs — either in the infield or outfield.
Wheelersburg coach Teresa Ruby compared Saturday’s showing at the plate to its 3-1 Southern Ohio Conference Division II come-from-behind and walk-off win over West, in which the Pirates trailed 1-0 entering their last at-bat.
Kiera Kennard homered off West ace Sydney McDermott for that dramatic triumph, but unfortunately there was no such last-minute magic in Akron.
“In the West game, we hit a lot of pop-ups. That’s comparable to today where we were dropping hands and getting under a lot of balls. The ball (Ricica’s pitches) had a lot of spin and it was spinning up, and we didn’t keep our hands up or work through the top half of the ball,” said Ruby. “We just didn’t do that.”
Besides the two home runs, Howard’s double and Lang’s bunt single — Rylie Hughes had a first-inning single, Brynley Preston doubled with one-out in the second to set up Sturgill’s homer, and Haley Myers muscled an RBI-single for the 7-7 tie.
Sturgill grounded out in the fourth for her third RBI, as she scored twice — along with one run apiece by Hughes, Salyers, Kennard, Lang, Skiver and Preston’s courtesy runner Jaelin Thomas.
But the Apaches scored right with the Pirates inning for inning, crossing once in the first for a 2-1 deficit before Fairview’s top player —senior shortstop Anna Ankney — hit a Howard second-inning offering close to where Sturgill’s home run landed.
Only Ankney, whose two opening-inning errors led directly to the Pirates’ first two runs, redeemed herself in the largest of ways possible with a grand slam.
Undoubtedly, it was the play of the game, and as Ruby said simply: “it hurt”.
“We knew she (Ankney) was dangerous coming in and is a quality player. We got a pitch over too much part of the plate, and she took advantage of it,” said the coach. “Unfortunately, she came up where we couldn’t put her anywhere.”
Ankney’s other hit was a leadoff single for Fairview’s first at-bat, as her alertness resulted in advancing to third base on a centerfield catch by Kennard in which the ball bounced off the second baseman Sturgill’s glove — and Ankney raced home on a throw to third.
In the third, Howard intentionally walked Ankney after the Apaches scored their sixth consecutive run — and staked a 7-4 lead.
But other than Ankney, the Apaches only had two hits from hole-hitters two thru five —as the bottom four of their batting order amounted 11 of their 15.
Allison Rhodes went 3-for-4 with three runs scored, Ricica chipped in a run and went 2-for-4, Clair Shininger scored twice and also went 2-for-4, and Alyssa Merritt made it a perfect 4-for-4 day with three runs batted in and a pair of runs scored.
“They have some excellent hitters and just have a nice team,” said Ruby. “The second half of their lineup beat the second half of ours. I thought that was the difference-maker. They get hits, they get on base, and that sets up Ankney and the top part to come back around.”
In the second, Rhodes, Merritt and Shininger singled —with Lang diving but just barely missing making a nice catch on Merritt’s basehit.
That set the table for Ankney, who mashed her grand slam and made it 5-4.
In the third, five-hole hitter Emerald Rittenhouse-Starbuck singled and Ricica helped her cause with a double —as Merritt made it 7-4 with a two-run single.
In the fifth, Merritt managed a bloop single to center to lead off, then Shininger smacked a triple to right field —which went over Lang’s head and rolled to the fence.
Merritt scored to give the Apaches the lead for good at 8-7, as Ankney then grounded out to bring in Shininger —as Rhodes, Ricica and Merritt all singled consecutively in the sixth, with Merritt scoring Rhodes for the Apaches’ second three-run lead (10-7).
All that sixth-inning damage was done with two outs, as the Apaches actually left eight on base compared to six for the Pirates.
The left-handed Howard, who faced Fairview’s lineup four times through, had all 10 runs charged to her as being earned.
Her only walk was the intentional to Ankney, but the Apaches put pressure on her and the Pirate defense all day.
“I know I didn’t have my best stuff today. I came in just trying to attack, and I missed my spots a few times and it hurt,” said Howard.
She was one of three visibly upset Pirates, with the seniors Sturgill and Hughes being the others, which were summoned for the postgame press conference — as Ruby and her three players spoke of the excellent chemistry and sisterhood which existed with this group.
“For a team to be close is the most important thing. If you don’t get along, you’re not going to have fun. Having fun is how you win,” said Hughes. “I haven’t always went to Wheelersburg, but it was my dream to come here. I couldn’t be more thankful for my coaches and the girls that helped me.”
“This team’s chemistry is unlike anything we’ve had in our four years,” said Sturgill. “We’ve communicated a lot, we’ve picked each other up, the underclassmen have always picked us up when we didn’t have our best games. I’m going to miss it a lot.”
“We’re going to miss these seniors a lot. They’ve really raised our team,” said Howard.
It was the final game for Sturgill, Hughes and four other Pirate seniors — Jaiden Missler, Bayleigh Stevens, Payton Walker and Laney Eller.
Eller (Ashland University) — who unfortunately missed most of her senior season with a torn ACL — Sturgill (Carson-Newman University) and Hughes (University of Charleston) have all officially signed to play softball in college.
Ruby said no doubt that the state tournament was the Pirates’ primary goal —which became that primary goal the moment it was announced that the 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus threat.
“It’s been tremendous this year. This group of kids lost a whole season. These seniors came back this year with a huge underclass group of freshmen and sophomores that we knew not only were going to play, but we were going to have to depend on them to produce at a high level. These seniors led, led by example and led by producing on the field,” she said. “The underclass has hugely matured throughout the season, from the beginning to the end. We did that almost on a daily basis, and the seniors started it. We didn’t come into this season expecting anything less than us being here today.”
Unfortunately, on one day anyway, the Apaches put a crack into Wheelersburg’s armor.
* * *
Wheelersburg 220 300 1 —8 7 1
Fairview 142 021 X —10 15 5
WHS: AndiJo Howard 6IP, 10R, 10ER, 15H, 1BB, 2K, 36BF
FHS: Paige Ricica 7IP, 8R, 4ER, 7H, 2BB, 3K, 35BF
W — Paige Ricica; L —AndiJo Howard
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved