May 28—CHILLICOTHE — The Wheelersburg Lady Pirates are headed back to Akron.
For the second-straight season, the Lady Pirates (25-1) are Division III, Region 11 champions — defeating Portsmouth West (26-3) 9-2 in an all-Southern Ohio Conference regional final.
It was exactly 364 days since the Wheelersburg softball program clinched the Region 11 title with a 9-1 win over Ironton — making their return trip to the D-III state tournament a process that was a year in the making.
As they've done in each game this postseason, Wheelersburg put their mark on the scoreboard first in Saturday's Region 11 final.
'Burg senior Lyndsay Heimbach reached via a two-out single in the top of the second inning, which brought up fellow senior Brynley Preston.
Preston put a ball in play to right field that resulted in a West error — and allowed Heimbach to race the bases and score all the way from first, giving the Lady Pirates a 1-0 lead.
Preston's courtesy runner, freshman Emma Smith, scored on the fourth pitch of the next at-bat on a passed ball for a 2-0 Wheelersburg advantage.
"We knew had to come out swinging at first pitch strikes early in the game," Heimbach said. "We didn't stress that we didn't score in the first — we picked it up in second inning and kept it going throughout the game, that was really what got us going and got us fired up."
"That was really important to us. We knew we had to set the tone early like we did against Tusky Valley," Preston said. "Once we get up, we keep building and keep going."
Wheelersburg coach Teresa Ruby agreed with her two seniors that early offensive production helped set the early tone for their day to come.
"You like to break the ice. The later you get in the game, it's sometimes harder to score those runs cause you get a little tight," Ruby said. "I was thrilled about us getting on the scoreboard first and it allowed the kids to breath."
Wheelersburg combined for eight hits on the day — exactly half of which were home runs.
Junior Macee Eaton tied her personal record with three home runs in the 9-2 win, while sophomore Rileigh Lang sent a 3-run bomb over the outfield fence in the Lady Pirates' five-run fifth.
Two of Eaton's HRs were solo shots — the first and the last — while her middle blast was a two-run shot that jump-started Wheelersburg's fifth.
It's the third time in her high school career Eaton has had a three homer game — but her first time doing so in the postseason.
Up to this point, Eaton has 19 home runs during her 2022 campaign and 33 for her career. Her 19 home runs this season is tied for sixth in the OHSAA record books entering the D-III state tournament.
"I love how energized it makes my team, feels like everyone gets more power in their bats," Eaton said. "Definitely gives me and my team more confidence to keep pushing and powering through innings."
"She puts the work in — that's what I call special. There's a lot of kids that have the talent, not all of them put the hard work in with that — and she does," Ruby said. "She's an elite talent."
West coach Dani Coleman discussed her team's approach to facing Wheelersburg's lineup and credited the Lady Pirates with not being timid at the dish.
"We took it one pitch at a time — had certain plans for certain hitters. Macee Eaton is deadly no matter where she is in the lineup — she looks for anything she can put in play," Coleman said. "I felt like Sydney (McDermott) and Abie (Boland) handled themselves well, there was a couple of mis-pitches and they (Wheelersburg) took advantage. They're very aggressive at the plate and they look for pitches they can drive."
AndiJo Howard earned the win in the circle for Wheelersburg, allowing five hits and two earned runs.
The Lady Pirates' defense in the field was excellent.
Multiple leaping catches by junior center fielder Kiera Kennard, a diving catch in foul territory by sophomore third baseman Sydney Skiver, a catch on a pop-up to shallow left field by freshman shortstop Catie Boggs helped prevent additional West damage at the plate and on the base paths.
"Tremendous effort. We had great plays by Kiera (Kennard) in center field, which really took the momentum away from them I felt like," Ruby said. "Sydney (Skiver) at third base, Catie (Boggs) in short left field. If I scripted it, I couldn't have written it any better. The kids were dialed in."
West sophomore Emily Moore drove two of Howard's pitches over the outfield fence at Unioto for the Lady Senators' two runs in the regional final.
"Last season she (Moore) was out pretty much the whole year. This year she's come out ready every game and has been a bright spot in our lineup," Coleman said. "We have plenty of bright spots in the lineup — she was seeing the ball really well today."
The Lady Senators finish the season 26-3 and are the Division III, Region 11 runner-up. They graduate a lone senior from this year's unit in Abie Boland — the team's starting catcher.
"We lose part of our heart, Abie, as a senior. She's given all she's got all four years," Coleman said. "We're very proud to have gotten another district championship and deep run this tournament."
With nearly their entire roster returning for the 2023 season, Coleman said she felt good about the Lady Senators' chances of making another deep tournament run and competing for a regional championship.
"This long tournament run and the loss in the regional final doesn't detract us from our goal, just slows us down a little," Coleman said. "We get back to work in the fall, lot of these girls are going to play in the summer. We just need to get back to work, keep our head down and keep grinding. We're really proud of our team in getting here. They've fought and worked their butt off to get here. Lots of reps and practice, lot of mental prep — couldn't be more proud of them for their performance this season."
Wheelersburg (25-1) will face Cardington-Lincoln in the Division III state semifinals at Akron Firestone Stadium on Friday, June 3 at 5:30 p.m.
The program faced Cardington-Lincoln in the 2017 Division III state semifinals — earning a 10-1 victory in their eventual state runner-up finish.
"I know they have a rich history and a good program — they have for years. I expect it to be a great game," Ruby said. "We're in the state tournament — no easy games there."
Wheelersburg will look to take the next step and reach the state championship if they're to prevail over C-L, after falling to eventual state champion Sherwood Fairview in the state semis a year ago.
The goal now that they've reached the stat tournament is competing for and winning the program's second state championship — with the first coming in 2016.
For Heimbach, Preston, Eaton, and their teammates, it's an opportunity they're most certainly looking forward to after gaining the experiences of last sesaon.
"We've been working for this ever since our loss last year. All we've wanted is to get back to state and this year win state," Heimbach said. "We've been working hard in the off-season, during the season, to get back and bring home a state title."
"As a junior, it was a great experience going to state last year. We learned a lot, so we're really excited to go back and play on that platform again," Preston said. "Having that experience is really great for all of us."
"We lost last year, felt like we're coming back even stronger this year," Eaton said. "Really proud of my team and hope we're able to finish it this year."
Wheelersburg 0 2 1 0 5 1 0 — 9 8 0
Portsmouth West 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 — 2 5 3
Catie Boggs 1-3, BB
Haley Myers 1-4, R
Macee Eaton 3-3, 3HR, 4RBI, BB
Rileigh Lang 2-4, HR, 3RBI
Lyndsay Heimbach 1-4, R
Portsmouth West hitting
Emily Moore 2-3, 2HR, 2RBI
Kaylor Pickelsimer 1-3
Abie Boland 1-3
Maci Bradford 1-3
Sydney McDermott (PW) 7IP, 8H, 6ER, 2BB, 11K (L)
AndiJo Howard (W) 7IP, 5H, 2ER, 0BB, 1K (W)
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 370-0713 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved