WHEELERSBURG — Wheelersburg sophomore AndiJo Howard had her uncharacteristic struggles in the pitching circle on Wednesday.
Howard, however, had no such difficulty driving the softball well out of Gene Bennett Park in Wheelersburg—and when the Pirates probably needed it most.
That’s because Howard hammered a three-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning to break the Pirates’ 3-3 tie with West —and freshman pitcher Kaylynn Carter’s four-inning effort of scoreless softball bolstered the Pirates pushing past the Senators 6-3 in a standing-room only Southern Ohio Conference Division II first-place affair.
That’s correct, as the ace Howard had the better day batting —instead of her usual lockdown outing pitching.
Against West standout hurler and strikeout extraordinaire Sydney McDermott, the Pirates put together five hits through the opening four frames —including an absolute bomb by junior Macee Eaton in the opening inning, which was a two-out solo shot that was well deep into the parking lot of Gene Bennett Park.
That made it 2-1 in favor of the Senators, and by the time the fifth inning rolled around, the Pirates were locked in a 3-3 duel with West and McDermott — with either a first-place SOC II tie or a two-game Wheelersburg lead at stake.
In the fifth, Catie Boggs drew a one-out McDermott walk, then with two outs, Eaton —already walked once in the third following her home run — was intentionally walked, a decision West coach Dani Coleman commented on and stood by.
More on that in a moment.
But speaking of moments, what a one for Howard —who sent McDermott’s offering out of the park, and into the parking lot.
Boggs, Eaton and Howard had the runs scored, which paved the way for Carter continuing her quest to record the circle win —which she did by retiring the final six Senators she saw.
Carter walked Macie Bradford to lead off the sixth with West now trailing 6-3, but she was the final Senator baserunner —having reached second on a wild pitch and third on a groundout.
But circle back to Howard’s home run, which actually originated in Eaton’s at-bat in the beginning.
Eaton, the junior three-hole hitter who is already verbally committed to the University of Virginia, can truly change the game with one swing of the bat —and is a longball threat each and every time she stands in the left-handed batter’s box.
So the Senators opted to intentionally walk her in the fifth for an optimum chance at getting the cleanup gal Howard out — but she certainly took advantage of the opportunity, and simply made West pay.
Both coaches commented on the inning — which spearheaded the Pirates propelling themselves to now a perfect 10-0 in the SOC II, and 14-1 overall.
The second-place Senators, which fell to 17-2 and now 9-2 in the division, are the closest competitors to the Pirates —which have now swept both West and South Webster.
“We know that some teams are going to pitch around Macee (Eaton), but we have to make sure we take advantage of those situations. You give us a runner, then we need to make it hurt. The biggest thing we focus on is hitting the ball hard and sharp. AndiJo (Howard) has been struggling the past couple of games, but she has been working hard to get her swing back. Tonight, it just happened to be a home run, but she hit the ball hard. She squared it up,” said veteran Wheelersburg coach Teresa Ruby. “That’s what we want to do. I tell Macee to not get frustrated, just take what they give us, and just work with it.”
Coleman, clearly — and likely wisely — wasn’t going to pitch to Eaton.
It just happened that West’s riverboat gamble going against Howard didn’t pay out.
“Macee will find a pitch to drive, even if it’s high. She is a really good hitter and that’s her job. She gets a hold of one every time. She’s deadly. The reason to put her on was that we had two outs, and we’re going to roll the dice with the next batter. With Macee hitting one home run already, we’ve been here before, and she will hit another one. So we rolled with AndiJo up, and I still stand by that decision,” said Coleman. “That’s probably one of the greatest hits of her (Howard) career.”
Unfortunately for Howard’s counterpart McDermott, who faced the Pirates three times through and scattered seven hits with seven strikeouts to give her 217 for this season, she is now winless against Wheelersburg in her four tries.
She certainly pitched well enough to win on Wednesday, but the Pirate lineup —especially the top two-thirds —is simply dangerous in every at-bat.
Aside from the home runs by Eaton and Howard, six-hole hitter Rileigh Lang landed a 3-for-3 day —including a leadoff double in the sixth.
The Pirates took the lead for good in the second stanza — when Sydney Skiver and Lang singled to lead off, and Lyndsay Heimbach doubled to left field to cross both with one out and make it 3-2.
Because both Skiver and Lang advanced a base on a passed ball before Heimbach’s hit —Skiver’s run was ruled earned, while Lang’s was not.
In short, the Pirates have a band of hitters — besides the most notable in Eaton.
“Macee of course can hit, she is special, and I am just really pleased this year with her discipline at the plate. Teams try to not give her great pitches to hit, and she is still hitting them,” said Ruby. “Then we have a good group around her that we trust.”
While Wheelersburg is known for its power at the plate, it’s 1-2 pitching punch of Howard and Carter —and the defense behind them —isn’t too shabby either.
Eaton, at first base, had three putouts in the opening two innings —while second baseman Haley Myers made five defensive assists.
Carter got the win in relief, as Kate Rollins’ one-out single in the fifth frame was her only allowed basehit.
Carter faced the final 15 Senators and Howard the opening 16, as Howard allowed three earned runs on two walks with five hits —including the cleanup Rollins rocking a solo home run in the third.
That two-out shot to right field forged the 3-3 tie.
Both Burg circlers struck out two, and combined to strand seven — with a 1-2-3 inning apiece (Howard in the second and Carter in the seventh).
“We had solid defense and solid pitching. Kaylynn is able to hit her spots and throw the pitches we are asking her to throw. Then we have a strong defense behind her,” said Ruby. “You can’t ask for more than that. We want to hold teams to three outs an inning and not give them any chances. We feel like our pitching is good enough with both AndiJo and Kaylynn that we want the other teams to put back-to-back-to-back hits together. That’s not going to be an easy thing to do. We feel like we cover a lot of ground, we play good defense, and tonight we did exactly that. We kept them to three outs an inning and it’s a difference-maker.”
Speaking of difference-makers, the Senators scored three runs —but missed out on some excellent opportunities for others.
West scored first when it combined walks by Rollins and Emma Sayre sandwiched around a Myla Mead single —as Abi Boland scored Sayre on a sacrifice fly, and Kaylor Pickelsimer singled in Mead.
But Howard stranded Senators on the corners —before Rollins’ home run in the third, and leadoff hits by Pickelsimer (single) and Bradford (double) in the fourth.
At that point, Ruby replaced Howard with Carter, who got McDermott to ground out right back her —but then she walked Kyli Osborne to load the bases.
But have no fear for the Pirates, as Sayre grounded to Skiver for a 5-2 fielder’s choice —as Carter got Mead to ground out to Myers to end the inning.
The only other Senators to reach base from there were Rollins with her single in the fifth, and Bradford on her walk in the sixth.
“We had prepared for both of their pitchers, but we left seven on base including the bases loaded with one out in the fourth and the middle of our lineup coming up, and that’s the result of not having timely hits tonight,” said Coleman. “We just did not have timely hits, so it was an off-night for our hitters. We hit a lot of balls right at them, we were hitting on top of the ball and not cutting through the ball like we normally do.”
Prior to Wednesday, the Senators had outscored their opponents 171-19 in their 17 wins —but as everybody is well aware, the Pirates are altogether a different bunch.
“Clearly, this was a big punch to us, because we’ve prepared for this (two Wheelersburg games) all year. But this doesn’t distract us to finish the rest of our regular season and have a good run in the tournament,” said Coleman. “Our girls have just bulldogged down and done a really good job so far this year.”
Speaking of the Ohio High School Athletic Association tournament, it’s highly likely that Wheelersburg will be the top-seeded Southeast District Division III squad —with West likely the second-seeded club.
The release of the tournament pairings is officially on Sunday, and chances are possible that sometime in May —the Pirates and Senators could have a third and final meeting.
But first things first, the Pirates — the six-time defending division champions — are closing in on yet another SOC II championship.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best game. And we have to match their emotions. The minute that we come in flat, then we’ve given away part of our advantage,” said Ruby. “You want to be in control of your own destiny, and not have to depend on anybody else. Our first goal for the year is to win the SOC II. We’re continuing to develop and get better, but we want our focus each day to be on that day’s opponent and not look ahead.”
* * *
Ports. West 201 000 0 — 3 6 1
Wheelersburg 120 030 X — 6 7 0
West: Sydney McDermott 6IP, 6R, 5ER, 7H, 0HB, 2BB, IBB, 7K, 27BF
Wheelersburg: AndiJo Howard 3+IP, 3R, 3ER, 5H, 0HB, 2BB, 2K, 16BF; Kaylynn Carter 4IP, 0R, 0ER, 1H, 0HB, 2BB, 2K, 15BF
W — Kaylynn Carter; L — Sydney McDermott
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