Peaking in the Kanawha Valley
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was a banner year for Kanawha Valley baseball teams. Better make that a trophy year, too.
For the first time since 2006, two Valley teams claimed championships at the state tournament when Herbert Hoover (Class AA) and Charleston Catholic (A) lugged away the heavy hardware Saturday from Appalachian Power Park.
The last time that happened was 2006 when South Charleston (AAA) and Buffalo (A) captured crowns. And even more historic, it's the only occasion in which a pair of Kanawha County schools won baseball titles in the same season since the state divided into two classes in 1976.
Overall, it capped a solid season for area programs.
Hurricane (25-5) held the No. 1 spot in the Gazette Class AAA state rankings much of the year before being KO'd by Cabell Midland in the regionals. Another squad of note was AA Poca (23-9), which beat two Class AA state tournament teams (Hoover, Bridgeport) in the regular season, as well as one in the AAA event (Midland).
The two championships culminated different journeys for Catholic and Hoover.
Over the previous 11 seasons, the Irish had been to the state tournament seven times under current coach Bill Mehle, but went 1-7 in those trips, losing in the first round six times.
This visit, however, was different, allowing the Irish to capture a pair of one-run victories - 6-5 against Valley in the semifinals and 9-8 against Magnolia in the finals - earning them their very first baseball crown.
Mehle got the most out of a nine-man senior class, which included six starters, most of them multiple-year starters.
"This year, I felt we had a more complete team than we've brought into the postseason," Mehle said, "and we just had to convince these guys to keep believing in themselves and competing regardless of game situations, and be confident that regardless of the game situation, we will find a way to win.''
Even with those graduation losses, Mehle doesn't expect the Irish to fade into the background.
"Year in and year out, we have high expectations of our program,'' he said. "We've been here eight times in the last 12 years. I don't think we've ever lost in the postseason to a team that was less capable than us. We always lost to an eventual state champ or runner-up. That's just a really good record.''
Hoover, meanwhile, took home its first title since 2007, when Kevin Buckner was coaching the squad.
The Huskies had a lot of incentive this time around, since they fell 1-0 to Wyoming East in last year's championship game - their only shutout of the season.
Hoover certainly made this year's title run interesting - it won the regional final against Wayne 4-2, the state semifinal versus Independence 7-3 on a walkoff grand slam by Hunter White in the bottom of the seventh and the state final 7-5 against Fairmont Senior, a Class AAA state tournament team 10 times in the previous 11 seasons.
Against Independence, Hoover trailed 3-2 after six innings and against Fairmont, the Huskies were down 5-1 going to bat in the top of the sixth.
The Huskies figure to welcome back more experience than the Irish, since they lose only four senior starters, and return junior ace Tristan Fields (7-1), who started both state tournament games and also led the team in homers and RBIs this season.
They could well contend again next year.
"I hope so,'' Fields said. "I'm pretty sure we will. If we keep working hard and show dedication, we'll be right back where we were this year.''
Like Mehle, Hoover coach Brian Young feels his program is on solid footing.
"We'll settle in and do what we do,'' Young said.
"We feel like we've got a good feeder program [Elkview Middle School] coming to us, and we do a nice job of working with the younger group of kids as well, and we've got kids at the school to step in who may not be quite as good, but with time they're going to be as good, and we feel we can build our program that way accordingly.''
Another local team continued its recent run to the state tournament, as Valley gave Catholic everything it wanted in the semifinals.
The Greyhounds (23-8) tied the game at 5 by scoring twice in the top of the seventh, setting the stage for a late Irish rally in the bottom of the inning.
It ended the third straight trip to Power Park for Valley, which had lost its two previous games by a combined score of 20-2 to Moorefield and Wheeling Central.
While Greyhounds coach Joe Craffey was pleased to finally have his real team show up, he and his players were disappointed with dropping a close contest.
"From the standpoint of who we played, I thought we played better than we had before,'' Craffey said, "but to lose like this is a kick in the gut. This one hurts more than the first two.
"I was proud of them. They could've very easily quit playing when we're down two runs, but they showed their true grit and what they're made of. That's what got us back in the game - the fight in them. I told them I was proud of them for showing that and I appreciate everything they've done for us.''
Craffey insists that the Hounds aren't that far from duplicating Catholic's feat.
During the regular season, Valley beat ranked AA teams like Liberty Raleigh and Wyoming East as well as splitting with the Irish.
"We lose five good seniors and they mean a lot to us,'' Craffey said. "They were here on the first team that came and they pretty much laid the groundwork for where we're at now as a program.
"I don't know if it means anything to think of yourself as a quality Class A baseball program, but I'd like to think it does. I'd like to think we're there. We're up there with Charleston Catholic, with Magnolia, with Wheeling Central. I think when teams see us and talk about us, they can put us in the same breath.''
And as long as we're talking about banner years, how about a little shout-out for the Gazette's state ratings?
For the last six years, the Gazette's exclusive weekly rankings have been the only listing of the top teams in West Virginia, since apathy led to the dissolution of the state sportswriters poll and the state coaches association poll.
But the Gazette rankings were really spot-on this spring.
Two No. 1 teams in the final ratings - Hedgesville (AAA) and Hoover (AA) - captured titles and the other state champion, Charleston Catholic, was ranked No. 2. However, the Irish were the No. 1 team in the season's first set of rankings on March 24.
The last set of rankings pegged the finalists in both AA (No. 1 Hoover vs. No. 2 Fairmont Senior) and A (No. 1 Magnolia vs. No. 2 Catholic). In AAA, it was No. 1 Hedgesville against No. 5 Cabell Midland.
In fact, if you use the pre-state tournament ratings as seeds, the higher-ranked teams went 8-1 at Power Park, with only Catholic's victory in the single-A title game bucking the trend.
In the first ratings that came out 10 weeks ago today, two AAA state tournament teams were highly thought of (No. 3 Hedgesville, No. 5 Parkersburg South) despite the fact the former hadn't been to the state tournament since 1974 and the latter since 1987. The other tournament teams, Midland and Woodrow Wilson, who started out 4-5 and 0-4, respectively, were unranked as Huntington was the early frontrunner in the first list.
In AA, three of the four state tournament teams were ranked 1-2-3 in the early season ratings (Fairmont Senior, Bridgeport, Hoover), with Independence the leading Region 3 entry at No. 8 despite Wyoming East being the defending state champion.
And in single-A, Catholic was No. 1, with the other tournament teams all represented as well - Magnolia No. 5, Valley No. 6 and Notre Dame No. 8.
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.