MINFORD — The Wheelersburg Pirates went through the Southern Ohio Conference Division II gauntlet and came out nearly unscathed.
In what was mainly a three-horse race for the SOC II title between themselves, Valley, and Minford, the Pirates took 3-of-4 from their rivals en route to a 15-1 record in league play — and the program’s first outright title since 2017. Three years ago, ‘Burg and Minford split the SOC II title in 2019.
Thursday’s 6-2 road victory over the Falcons in eight innings solidified the Pirates’ standing as the top team in the conference.
Despite having two seniors in Cooper McKenzie and Hunter Thomas and seven sophomore starters, ‘Burg coach Derek Moore said a league title was at the top of his team’s goals entering the campaign.
“The league this year, anybody can beat anybody. We set goals with our seniors last November and December, and even though we knew we’d have a young team with not much experience at the varsity level, that was still our number one goal,” Moore said. “To see these guys mature throughout the year and be able to achieve this, it’s special. It’s a group of two seniors and bunch of sophomores that grew up right before our eyes. Hopefully this will carry some momentum going into tournaments.”
Wheelersburg split the season series with Valley and swept Minford — earning victories over both in the final eight days of the league race.
A shared SOC II title was still a possibility entering Thursday’s contest — as a Minford victory over the Pirates would have meant both Valley and ‘Burg would finish the season 14-2 against league opponents.
Four Pirate runs in extra innings made sure that it would be themselves, alone, at the top of the race.
“Give both of those teams credit. When it comes down to it, both those teams are going to make deep runs — they’re coached really well and have great players,” Moore said, of Valley and Minford. “To say that we finished beating the two teams on our toes is awesome to see. Super proud.”
Wheelersburg (16-8, 15-1 SOC II) batted around in the eighth as their first five runners reached base. Back-to-back bases loaded walks drawn by sophomores Creed Warren and Connor Estep broke the tie and gave the Pirates a 4-2 lead.
Sophomore Jake Darling drove in two more Pirate runs with a two RBI single to provide extra cushion and give his team a 6-2 lead.
Thomas was the Pirates’ starting pitcher and despite earning the no-decision, drew the praise of Moore post-game. Thomas allowed five hits, two earned runs and struck out six in six innings on the hill.
Estep entered in relief and held the Falcons scoreless in the seventh and eighth frames, issuing one walk and allowing a hit.
“I was really pleased with our approach early in the game, able to score early in the first. Not sure if we got satisfied, had some lazy swings after scoring early,” Moore said. “Have to give Hunter a lot of credit — he’s been really, really good over the course of the year. To be able to compete and leave his mark on the field, have a senior moment was great.”
Wheelersburg took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when McKenzie drove in Estep on an RBI single — after Estep got the inning started with a one-out double.
Minford (14-8, 12-4 SOC II) took a 2-1 lead with a pair of bases loaded walks in the bottom of the fourth by senior Branson Alley and sophomore Carson Cronin.
After the Pirates tied the game with an RBI pinch-hit single by Lane Hutchinson following a leadoff double by Darling, the Falcons were unable to produce another run.
“The biggest difference was their hunger — you get into these big games, big moments you have to want it. They did a great job of that — every one of their kids came up with an approach and hit the baseball,” Minford coach Anthony Knittel said, afterwards. “Tonight we competed for about six innings, when the game’s on the line we have to execute in big-time moments.”
Minford starter junior Cole Borland earned a no-decision after six strong innings on the mound in which he allowed nine hits, two earned runs, and issued a walk. Junior Noah Martin took over on the mound in relief in the seventh and was given a loss after allowing four earned runs in the eighth.
Wheelersburg, as the No. 2 seed in Division III in the Southeast District, will host the winner of Portsmouth West and Federal Hocking on Thursday, May 19 in a D-III sectional final.
“Everyone knows when you get into the tournament, anything can happen. It’s one of the great things about this game is that anything can happen,” Moore said. “Glad we get one more home game in a sectional title, and it’s all eyes on a deep tournament run. We’ll enjoy this one, but still a lot of work to be done.”
Minford, as the No. 4 seed in Division III in the Southeast Distirct, will host No. 29 seed West Union in a sectional semifinal on Monday, May 16 at 5:00 p.m. A victory for the Falcons over the Dragons would mean they would host the winner of Oak Hill and Southeastern in a D-III sectional final on Thursday of next week.
“I think we can have a great run in the tournament. I still believe in these guys, they’re talented. We just haven’t been able to put the complete game together. Every one of our games that we’ve lost, we’ve been within a run or two going into the sixth inning,” Knittel said. “Playing these tight games against good competition like we have this week, it’s going to help us this postseason.”
Wheelersburg 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 — 6 11 0
Minford 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 — 2 6 2
Creed Warren 1-4, BB, RBI
Connor Estep 2-4, 2R, BB
Cooper McKenzie 1-5, RBI
Jake Darling 3-3, BB, 2RBI
Lane Hutchinson 1-1, RBI
Caden Conn 2-4, R
Landon Hutchinson 0-2, R, BB
Hunter Thomas 1-3, BB
Aodhan Queen 2-4, R
Mason Book 0-3, R, BB
Noah Martin 2-3
Branson Alley 1-2, RBI, 2BB
Rhyan Queen 0-3, BB
Carson Cronin 1-3, RBI, BB
Hunter Thomas (W) 6IP, 5H, 2ER, 4BB, 6K
Connor Estep (W) 2IP, 1H, 0ER, 1BB, 1K (W)
Cole Borland (M) 6IP, 9H, 2ER, 1BB, 1K
Noah Martin (M) 2IP, 3H, 4ER, 4BB 1K (L)
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 370-0713 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved