SOUTH WEBSTER — If you give the Wheelersburg Pirates an inch, or even an inch, expect the Orange and Black to take a mile — or at least over 300 feet.
On Wednesday, as a result — whether it was inches, yards, feet or even Southern Ohio land miles — those Pirates took an important Southern Ohio Conference Division II softball victory from the host South Webster Jeeps in the season opener.
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 getting off to a slow start early — and to end cashed in on an epic and dramatic 6-5 nine-inning season-opening triumph.
That’s right, as the six-time powerhouse defending division champions saw their league streak of AT LEAST 30 in serious jeopardy against the young Jeeps — as South Webster went ahead 4-1 after its first at-bat, and British standout Bri. Claxon delivers a consistently consistent solo home run with two outs in the sixth for a 5-3 advantage.
At the time, it even seemed bleak for the ‘Burg — but its ever-explosive bats finally heated up, as did the 80-plus-degree temperatures, against Jeep pitcher Rylee McGraw.
In short, Wheelersburg trailed from the first inning on — until Eaton doubled to center to lead off the seventh, and Sydney Skiver hit a game-tying two-run one-out single to straight center field for 5-5.
Finally, after shortstop Claxon came up with his final of several mind-boggling defensive efforts in the eighth, turning a 6-3 double play — unable to get to the long ball with Eaton up to lead off the ninth.
The junior left-handed power slugger sent a McGraw offering over the left-field fence to push the Pirates ahead 6-5 – their first since the opening at-bat, when Eaton singled to right, driving in freshman Catie Boggs.
Boggs opened 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 verbal commit to the University of Virginia, went 4 for 5 — with her only other single of the infield variety, but a hard, direct line drive from McGraw, which hit her above the knee but below the thigh.
Veteran Wheelersburg coach Teresa Ruby knew South Webster would be too challenging a contest to start the season with — as the Pirates’ scheduled season opener and SOC II tilt with Waverly was pushed back from Monday to Thursday.
Had the Pirates lost Wednesday, it would have marked a highly unusual two-game losing streak for the proud program — considering their last defeat came in last season’s Division III state semifinals.
The Pirates’ only other runs came courtesy of a two-run Myers double in the second inning, which plated both senior Lyndsay Heimbach and Boggs — who singled with one out and two outs in the inning, respectively.
Wheelersburg left runners on second and third in the first and sixth, Myers and Rileigh Lang on 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 go-ahead run over the fence simply took the sting out and left the Pirates on the bases.
As Ruby said, “they always say it doesn’t matter how many (base hits) you get, it’s when you get them.”
“We kept knocking on the door, but we didn’t handle the situation well. We couldn’t get those runners in scoring position with less than two outs, and we kept hitting fly ball after fly ball. The McGraw girl threw a nice ballgame for them , and Bri Claxon at shortstop knocked off several runs with several great plays. Sydney Skiver has struggled a bit in the preseason, but she’s worked really hard. To have that at-bat (home run) in that crucial situation, it couldn’t have happened a better kid. But that’s what happens when you put in the work. She saw the benefits of it today,” the coach said. “We really didn’t get hits when we needed them until late, but luckily we got them in the end.”
The Division IV Jeeps are now 0-3 and 0-2 in league, but their three losses are to three quality Division III clubs – 4-2 against West, 7-2 against non-league Wellston and now 6-5 in nine against Wheelersburg .
South Webster head coach Andy Messer praised his Jeeps’ play, saying the Pirates “capitalized on a couple pitches that were out at the plate.”
“The two home runs, Rylee (McGraw) just hung them (pitchers) out a little bit over. Their lineup has all good hitters and it’s hard to get around them,” he said. “I think the one to Eaton was a fastball. We tried to race around her as well, but if you even miss and make a mistake, they will make you pay.”
Inches out across 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 to Myers at second — but she bobbled it and the speedy Claxon hit the throw.
Claxon then stole second, put herself in scoring position for a potential 6-6 tie — and set up freshman Lauren Kaltenbach’s at-bat.
Again, Kaltenbach’s grounder went right to Myers, who again fumbled the field goal attempt — and a running Claxon rolled the dice and raced home.
But Myers fired a throw to senior catcher Brynley Preston, who applied the tag to a sliding Claxon — whose hand didn’t touch the plate before Preston took out.
In the final analysis, Myers more than made up for his two errors – with a precision shot straight to Preston for second out to preserve the lead.
“It was a nail biter, I know the sweep tag was there, and the umpire obviously had a better view than I did and we have to trust that he made the right call. But I’m basing that decision to send Bri to the plate because she’s the fastest kid on the field, and the ball wasn’t in the fielder’s hands,” Messer explained. “So I sent Bri and we rolled the dice, but it didn’t pay off.”
Ruby, conversely, simply said “you have to play through the whole play.”
“We knew Claxon is very fast and likes to run the bases. We talked about expecting her to take extra bases and she did, and ‘Deuce’ (Myers) is a player and I take 10 off her. Haley field didn’t clean the ball, but she played through it,” she said. “It saved the game for us.”
Howard recorded the final out on Skylar Zimmerman, who went 3-for-5 — but grounded out to Skiver at third to end the game.
In fact, after Claxon’s sixth-inning home run, Howard — who allowed 11 hits with just four strikeouts but no walks or hit batters in the 39-game total — didn’t 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 shortstop Boggs plus two strikeouts.
First out of the seventh was a flyout to Heimbach in left.
“AndiJo will tell you that she started off really slow, but she battled. That’s what we talked about. Last year, she probably wouldn’t have survived this game emotionally. This game she showed a lot more maturity, showed a lot of composure and sat in,” says Ruby. “I was very happy with it.”
Howard’s finish was in stark contrast to her start — allowing four runs on four hits in South Webster’s opening at-bat.
Claxon and Zimmerman singled, Bella Claxon reached on a failed fielder’s choice when Bri Claxon eluded a rundown between third and home, and Ashley Spence and MaKayla Raynard had two-run doubles — crossing Bri Claxon and Zimmerman at Spence’s and Bella Claxon and Spence at Raynard’s.
From there, however, Howard put the Jeeps back 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 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’s a really good pitcher,” Coach Messer said. “She set out to have a really good game.”
So did the senior McGraw, who also went the distance as Howard – striking out 44 Pirates with two strikeouts.
Her only at-bats were walks to Skiver in the fifth and ninth, and hitting Preston with a pitch in the fourth.
In addition to Eaton’s 4-for-5 day, Boggs went 3-for-5, Myers and Heimbach both went 2-for-5, and Lang landed a ninth-inning single plus Skiver’s homer.
Despite seven combined errors including the Jeeps’ five, all 11 runs were truly earned.
And it was indeed a softball epic, but in one that 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 always tell them to never get hung up on playing bigger schools and compete so well with them.”
One of the bigger groups is Wheelersburg — with a SOC II target always on its back.
– This was a tough match for us to start with. Coach (Messer) is doing a great job with this South Webster group. They have some good athletes. We just have to find our way. We know we always have the SOC goal on us, and we have to match the other teams’ emotion and effort. So this is a great learning curve for us, says Ruby. “We take this, knowing that now we can play under pressure and that we can play from the back. 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
South Webster senior Bri Claxon (15) celebrates her home run with Jeeps coach Andy Messer as the Jeeps faced Wheelersburg in Wednesday’s Southern Ohio Conference Division II softball game.
Wheelersburg’s Rileigh Lang (10) makes a catch in right field during the Pirates’ Southern Ohio Conference Division II softball game against South Webster on Wednesday.
Wheelersburg second baseman Haley Myers (2) fires a throw to first baseman Macee Eaton during the Pirates’ Southern Ohio Conference Division II softball game against South Webster on Wednesday.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, via e-mail at [email protected]or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved