SOUTH WEBSTER — If you give the Wheelersburg Pirates an inch, or even a centimeter, then expect the Orange and Black to take a mile —or at least over 300 feet.
On Wednesday, those Pirates as a result —whether it was inches, yards, feet or even southern Ohio country kilometers — seized a key early-season Southern Ohio Conference Division II softball victory from the host South Webster Jeeps.
That’s because with simply clutch home runs by Sydney Skiver and Macee Eaton, and a stick-with-it bang-bang big defensive play by Wheelersburg second baseman Haley Myers, the Pirates picked up business late after starting slow early —and ultimately cashed in for an epic, and dramatic, 6-5 nine-inning season-opening triumph.
That’s correct, as the six-time and powerhouse defending division champions saw their league winning streak of AT LEAST 30 in some serious jeopardy against the young Jeeps —as South Webster went ahead 4-1 following its initial at-bat, and senior standout Bri Claxon conking an ever-consequential solo home run with two outs in the sixth for a 5-3 advantage.
At that point, it even appeared bleak for the ‘Burg —but its ever-explosive bats finally heated up, like the 80-plus degree temperatures, against Jeep pitcher Rylee McGraw.
In short, Wheelersburg was behind from the first inning onward —until Eaton doubled to center to lead off the seventh, and Sydney Skiver smashed a game-tying two-run one-out blast to straight-away centerfield for the 5-5 tie.
Finally, after the shortstop Claxon came up with her final of multiple mind-numbing defensive efforts in the eighth, and turned a 6-3 double play — there was no getting to the longball with Eaton up to lead off the ninth.
The junior left-handed power-slugger sent a McGraw offering over the left-field fence, and pushed the Pirates into the 6-5 lead —their first since the opening at-bat, when Eaton singled to right and drove in freshman Catie Boggs.
Boggs began the game with a triple to right, the first of 13 Pirate hits —but with five including the two home runs in the final three frames.
Eaton, already a University of Virginia verbal commit, ended up 4-of-5 —with her only other single being of the infield variety, but a hard and direct line drive off McGraw, hitting her above her knee but below her thigh.
Wheelersburg veteran coach Teresa Ruby knew South Webster would be an overly-challenging contest to start the season with —as the Pirates’ scheduled season opener and SOC II tilt with Waverly was postponed from Monday to Thursday.
Had the Pirates lost on Wednesday, it would have marked a highly-unusual two-game losing streak for the proud program —considering their most recent defeat occurred in last season’s state semifinals for Division III.
The Pirates’ only other runs came courtesy of a two-run second-inning Myers double, which plated both senior Lyndsay Heimbach and Boggs —who singled with one out and two outs respectively in the inning.
Wheelersburg left runners at second and third in the first and sixth, Myers and Rileigh Lang at second in the second and seventh, and the bases loaded in the fifth trailing 4-3.
But Eaton’s double, Skiver’s homer, and Eaton’s over-the-fence go-ahead shot simply took the sting off leaving Pirates on bases.
As Ruby said, “they always say it doesn’t matter how many (basehits) you get, it’s when you get them.”
“We kept knocking at the door, but we didn’t do well with situation hitting. We couldn’t get those runners in scoring position in with less than two outs, and we kept hitting fly ball after fly ball. The McGraw girl did throw a nice ballgame for them, and Bri Claxon at shortstop took away several runs with several fantastic plays. Sydney Skiver has been struggling some in the preseason, but she’s been working really hard. To have that at-bat (home run) in that crucial of a situation, it couldn’t have happened to a better kid. But that’s what happens you put the work in. She saw the benefits of that today,” said the coach. “We really didn’t get hits when we needed them until late, but fortunately we finally got them.”
The Division IV Jeeps are now 0-3 and 0-2 in the league, but their three losses are to three quality Division III clubs —4-2 to West, 7-2 at non-league Wellston, and now 6-5 in nine against Wheelersburg.
South Webster head coach Andy Messer praised his Jeeps’ play, and said the Pirates “capitalized on a couple of pitches that were out over the plate”.
“The two home runs, Rylee (McGraw) just hung them (pitches) out a little bit over. Their lineup all has good hitters and it’s hard to pitch around them,” he said. “I believe the one to Eaton was a fastball. We were trying to pitch around her as well, but if you even barely miss and make a mistake, they are going to make you pay.”
Inches out over the plate in the top half, and even split-seconds involving a plate play in the bottom.
With one out, and with Wheelersburg not committing a single error to that point behind sophomore pitcher AndiJo Howard, Claxon clubbed a ground ball towards Myers at second — but she bobbled it and the speedy Claxon beat the throw.
Claxon then stole second, putting herself in scoring position for a potential 6-6 tie — and setting up freshman Lauren Kaltenbach’s at-bat.
Again, Kaltenbach’s grounder went right to Myers, who again mishandled the fielding attempt —and a running Claxon rolled the dice and raced home.
But Myers fired a dart of a throw to senior catcher Brynley Preston, who applied the tag to a sliding Claxon —whose hand didn’t touch the plate prior to Preston’s tagout.
In the final analysis, Myers more than made up for her two errors — with a precision firing directly to Preston for the second out to preserve the lead.
“It was a bang-bang play, I know the swipe tag was there, and the umpire obviously had a better view than I did and we have to trust he made the right call. But I base that decision to send Bri to the plate because she’s the fastest kid on the field, and the ball was not in the fielder’s hands, ” explained Messer. “So I sent Bri and we rolled the dice, but it didn’t pay.”
Ruby, conversely, said simply “you have to play through the whole play.”
“We knew Claxon is very quick and likes to run the bases. We talked about expecting her to take extra bases and she did, and ‘Deuce’ (Myers) is a gamer and I’ll take 10 of her. Haley didn’t field the ball cleanly, but she played through it,” she said. “It saved the game for us.”
Howard recorded the final out on Skylar Zimmerman, who went 3-of-5 — but grounded out to Skiver at third to end the game.
In fact, following Claxon’s sixth-inning home run, Howard —who allowed 11 hits with only four strikeouts but no walks or hit batsmen in facing 39 total Jeeps — did not give up a hit after that.
In fact, she retired eight in a row —getting three grounders to Eaton at first base, sandwiched around two popouts to the shortstop Boggs plus two strikeouts.
The first out of the seventh was a flyout to Heimbach in left.
“AndiJo will tell you that she started very slow, but she battled. That’s what we talked about. Last year, probably, she emotionally wouldn’t have survived this game. This game, she showed a lot more maturity, showed a lot of composure, and settled in,” said Ruby. “I was very happy with that.”
Howard’s finish was in stark contrast to how she started —allowing four runs on four hits for South Webster’s initial at-bat.
Claxon and Zimmerman singled, Bella Claxon reached on an unsuccessful fielder’s choice as Bri Claxon escaped a rundown between third and home, and Ashley Spence and MaKayla Raynard racked up two-run doubles —which crossed Bri Claxon and Zimmerman on Spence’s and Bella Claxon and Spence on Raynard’s.
From there, though, Howard retired the Jeeps 1-2-3 in the second —as the Jeeps’ only other hits and subsequent baserunners until Bri Claxon’s home run were singles by Zimmerman and Spence in the third, Claxon in the fourth, Zimmerman and Ava Messer in the fifth, and finally McGraw in the sixth.
Howard stranded six Jeeps — including four in scoring position, with runners on the corners in the fifth.
“AndiJo finally found her groove and she is a really good pitcher,” said Coach Messer. “She settled in to throw a really good game.”
So too did the senior McGraw, who also went the distance like Howard — and faced 44 Pirates with two strikeouts.
Her only free passes were walks to Skiver in the fifth and ninth, and hitting Preston with a pitch in the fourth.
In addition to Eaton’s 4-of-5 day, Boggs went 3-for-5, Myers and Heimbach both 2-for-5, and Lang landing a ninth-inning single plus Skiver’s homer.
Despite seven combined errors including the Jeeps’ five, all 11 runs were indeed earned.
And, it was indeed a softball epic, but in one which Wheelersburg took over 300 feet —plus fractions of seconds at the end.
“I’m proud of our girls,” said Messer, whose Jeeps host Valley on Friday, “We’re always telling them to never hang their heads on playing bigger schools and competing so well with them.”
One of those bigger squads is Wheelersburg —with an SOC II target always upon its back.
“This was a tough game for us to start with. Coach (Messer) does a fantastic job with this South Webster group. They have some talented athletes. We just have to find our way. We know we always have the SOC target on us, and we have to match the other teams’ emotions and effort. So this is a great learning experience for us,” said Ruby. “We’ll take this, knowing now we can play under pressure and we can play from behind. We showed a lot of composure and I’m proud of them for that. The plan is to build on this.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 120 000 201 — 6 13 2
South Webster 400 001 000 —5 11 5
WHS: AndiJo Howard 9IP, 5R, 5ER, 11H, 0HB, 0BB, 4K, 39BF
SWHS: Rylee McGraw 9IP, 6R, 6ER, 13H, 1HB, 2BB, 2K, 44BF
W —AndiJo Howard; L —Rylee McGraw
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved