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St. Albans no longer an underdog vs. Nitro

St. Albans should have a different perspective heading into the postseason.

The Red Dragons, by almost any measure, figure to be favored for their annual May showdown with cross-river rival Nitro, a best-of-three sectional that begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Loftis Field in St. Albans.

SA owns more regular-season victories than Nitro (24 to 20), is listed higher in the Gazette's Class AAA state ratings (sixth to Nitro's 10th), has more wins over ranked teams (four to three), was the higher seed in the Mountain State Athletic Conference tournament (No. 2 to the Wildcats' No. 7) and, let's not forget, drubbed Nitro convincingly in the teams' only regular-season game (11-1 in five innings).

That's certainly a different look than recent years. Nitro has not only won five straight from St. Albans in Region 4 Section 1, but has gone on to take the regional and compete in the state tournament all five years - earning two state titles and one runner-up finish in that time.

Yes, SA (24-5) has definitely gone from underdog to top cat in its section as postseason play fires up around West Virginia starting today.

"They are more talented this year,'' said Nitro coach Steve Pritchard. "They should be the favorite. They've got eight seniors and seven of them have started for three years. They've been able to prove it over a longer time. They played well the first week, and they've played well at the end of the year.''

St. Albans coach Rick Whitman likes this season his team has turned in so far, but realizes that success is no guarantee for what may happen this week.

"The team that plays best is going to win,'' Whitman said. "I think if we're more focused on ourselves, like we played through the season, we'll be fine. It's really nothing special. We just told our guys that all we want to do is play as hard as we can and whatever happens, happens. Don't get caught up in the past or anything. The fact they've won five in a row has nothing to do with this year.

"Our kids definitely respect them [but] we've beaten them [at least once] the last three years. I don't think we have to do anything to be motivated to play. Sectionals is what they work for all year. It should be fun, and it's always interesting.''

While St. Albans strung together an 11-game winning streak at midseason, Nitro has been more stop and start. Over the last month, the Wildcats (20-9) haven't won more than two in a row.

"To be honest,'' Pritchard said, "we had a better season than I anticipated, really. We replaced eight starters. We've had moments where we've played good, but moments where we looked worse than I expected. It's kind of an up and down year.

"We have a unique team in the sense that you hear some [coaches] talk about they don't know what team will show up for them some days. We don't know what individuals will show up. One day one kid's enthused to play hard, and the next day they act like they don't even want to be there. This is the first team I've had at Nitro where it doesn't look like we're having fun playing.''

Both coaches think weather could play a factor in their best-of-three. If there are any rain-induced gaps in the series, it could help Nitro get the most out of its top two pitchers, Ryan McDonough (6-1) and Korey Dunbar (56 Ks in 32 innings, 0.43 ERA).

"We've been bouncing a lot of different ideas off our heads,'' Pritchard said, "which is a good thing because I've got the best coaching staff in the state. We've got three, four different scenarios, but time's run out. We have to pick one of them. We'll have an idea of what we've got to do to beat St. Albans, and the kids have got to go execute it.''

"We don't know what they're going to do pitching-wise,'' Whitman said, "whether it's to use McDonough and replace him with Dunbar or to ride Dunbar as long as they can. We're kind of preparing for both scenarios. We've just got to be tough outs and put pressure on them from an offensive standpoint. Put the ball in play. We can't strike out a lot. Our guys have to play their game.''

 

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    Seven Kanawha Valley teams get the jump on sectional play by competing in openers today (see sectional schedule, Page 2B).

    In Class AAA, Logan visits George Washington and Winfield hosts Lincoln County. Two AA tilts find Sissonville at Herbert Hoover and Sherman hosting Poca. In Class A, Charleston Catholic travels to Van and St. Joseph is at Buffalo.

    The SSAC allows teams this entire week to complete their sectionals, as well as May 17-19 next week following the three-day WESTEST moratorium.

    The area's highest-ranked team, Class AAA No. 1 Hurricane (26-4) doesn't make its postseason debut until Tuesday against the Winfield-Lincoln County loser.

    The Redskins will most likely square off against the Generals in the finals of Region 4 Section 3. Winfield handed Hurricane one of its rare defeats - a 5-1 setback on April 26 that's the Skins' only loss in their last 12 games.

    "That's a good team and [the sectional's] at their place,'' said Hurricane coach Brian Sutphin. "They beat us the last time, and if we don't show up again, they're going to get the same result. You've got to take care of business.

    "It's not about what your stats say or what your year says or what your record is. It's about who's better that day. My old high school coach, Ed Carter, used to say that you can go from champ to chump in one day - and it's right, especially with high school sports.''

    Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.


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