Current, former state champs in Class A state tourney

By Garrett Cullen - WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON — A look at how the Class A high school baseball state tournament matchups set up from Charleston:

Wheeling Central (17-9) vs.

Pendleton County (25-9), 10 a.m. Friday

Wheeling Central is making its first trip to the state tournament since 2011 – a five year gap that felt more like a decade for a Maroon Knights program that has captured six baseball championships since 1999.

“We’re very excited to be back,” said Wheeling Central coach Jamey Conlin. “We had a stated goal at the beginning of the year that we wanted to win a state championship. We felt like we had the talent that we could do it, we just had to play consistent baseball and play up to the standards that we expect.”

It was inconsistency, however, that Conlin pointed to in the first half of the year as Wheeling Central entered the final week of April with a 9-8 record, having lost five of six.

“Our focus is always on how we are playing, rather than which opponent we’re playing,” Conlin said. “We started putting together better at-bats, our pitching stepped up a little bit and our defense started making more of the routine plays and the right play. The number one key for us was our defense improving – that’s what led to the turnaround.”

Tyler Riedel has been the ace on the mound for Wheeling Central, entering the state tournament with a 1.20 ERA (0.95 ERA during the postseason). Brian Shaw has been a strong No. 2 behind Riedel, posting a 2.16 ERA, giving up just one earned run in 16-plus postseason innings.

At the plate, junior catcher Isaac Rine enters Freiday with a .493 average and 45 runs scored. Brian Campbell (.380, 36 RBIs), Anthony Gentile (.392, 30 RBIs), Riedel (.355), Kevin Keane (.377), Patrick Brown and Shaw all boast averages over .300 as well.

Pendleton County, meanwhile, emerged from a Region 2 in Class A that had five ranked teams entering the postseason. It’s the Wildcats’ first trip to the state tournament since they won their only baseball title back in 2004.

“It feels great,” said Pendleton County coach Sam Yokum. “We feel like we’ve had some really good teams here over the last few years, but we’re in such a difficult region. There were any one of six teams in our region this year that could have gone to states and represented our region well. We’re tickled to be the one that represents Region 2 this year.”

It’s a Pendleton County team that has seven seniors on the roster and has been building to finally get back to Charleston.

“We’ve had this group together for quite a while and several of them have started for the last four years,” Yokum said. “We don’t have dominating pitching, but we have adequate pitching. We don’t hit a lot of home runs, but we put the ball in play. We field the ball well and play defense – that’s been one of the biggest aces up our sleeves this year.”

The Wildcats, which ended the regular season ranked No. 3 in the MetroNews baseball poll, defeated No. 7 East Hardy 7-1 in the regional semifinals and then defeated No. 10 Tygarts Valley 7-3 in the regional final.

“It was nice to see our guys come out and battle at the end, putting the ball in play and do what we had to do to score some runs,” Yokum said. “It’s an opportunity, we know that. But, we’re facing a very good Wheeling Central team that has a couple of outstanding pitchers. We welcome the challenge and our kids are fearless.”

Tim Hevener likely will get the start for Pendleton County on Friday as he’s been at the top of the Wildcats’ rotation throughout the season. Logan Cooper has also been a productive No. 2 for Pendleton County on the mound.

“(Hevener) has pitched for us in big games all year,” Yokum said. “When things go well for him, there’s not a lot of balls being put in play hard, which takes pressure off of our defense. We have a freshman third baseman who is playing very well, but anytime you can take that pressure off with your pitcher, that means a lot.

Hevener struck out 15 in the regional semifinal win over East Hardy, giving up just three hits.

“He kept them off balance and none of those balls were hit extremely hard,” Yokum said. “That was huge for us. When Logan (Cooper) pitches, he has to keep the ball down as well and hit spots. Our kids don’t throw the ball by people, we don’t have that kind of speed.

“Our breaking balls aren’t great, they’re okay,” he continued. “So we try to spot the ball as much as we can. We don’t go a whole lot deeper than Tim (Hevener) or Logan (Cooper). Our key is to keep the other team a little bit off-balance.”

Cooper, meanwhile, leads the Wildcats at the plate and on-base percentage. The Wildcats also made the state tournament in 1999, losing in the championship game to Wheeling Central.

Man (12-17) vs. Wahama (20-11),

approximately 1 p.m. Friday

The second Class A semifinal on Friday features the last two state champions, also a rematch of the 2015 title game, won by Wahama 7-0.

The White Falcons, going for a fourth baseball championship overall, are into the state tournament for seventh time, but the first back-to-back trips in school history.

“This has been a group that wanted to make its legacy of getting back to Charleston two years in a row,” said Wahama coach Tom Cullen. “We’ve had some pretty good teams here that have returned after making the state tournament and couldn’t get back, whether it was the extra pressure of it or what. I have a couple of great assistants in Ron Bradley and Phillip Hoffman – they’ve done a good job of helping keep the kids mentally prepared.”

This year’s Wahama team, which returned six starters from a season ago, won 13 of 14 in early April, but hit a lull in the final weeks of the regular season where it lost six of eight.

“We started out hitting the ball well at the beginning of the season,” Cullen said. “But we weren’t playing very good defense. We had to make some switches and got some things turned around. Hopefully we are back on the right foot.”

The bats have come around just enough in the postseason to send the White Falcons back to the state semifinals as Philip Hoffman and Mason Hicks have shut the door on the mound. The 1-2 pitching combo didn’t give up a run in regional play (2-0 win over Charleston Catholic and 7-0 win over Gilmer County) as Wahama outscored its sectional and regional opponents 41-2.

“Philip (Hoffman) and Mason (Hicks) both believe in themselves,” Cullen said. “Philip’s fastball, when he has it going, can be toward the upper 80s. Mason has a low 80s fastball and a solid curve to go with it.”

Hoffman enters Friday with an 8-4 record and 0.49 ERA, while Hicks is 7-3 with a 1.87 ERA. Hoffman leads the White Falcons at the plate as well, posting a .521 batting average with 34 RBIs and 29 runs scored. Jared Oliver (.384), Jared Nutter (.352), Colton Arrington (.348), Hicks (.329) and Nyles Riggs (.313) are all over .300 on the year, while Dalton Kearns, Tyler Grimm and Ricky Kearns have also been productive.

The White Falcons will be facing Man team in the semifinals that has been much better over the last few weeks than its 12-17 record would indicate. The Hillbillies started the season in a 2-10 hole, but have gone 10-7 down the stretch and outscored their postseason opponents 29-2.

“(Man’s) Larry Vance is an excellent coach,” Cullen said of the Hillbillies. “He probably spends more time juggling things around early, giving all of his kids a chance to see who can plan. They will be solid, they always are. They’ll hit the ball, play good defense and they always have strong pitching.”

Man, the 2014 state champion, is making its third straight tournament appearance and sixth all-time (all six have come under Vance, whose first season was 2005).

“We’ve been playing much better baseball over the second half of the year,” Vance said. “The big thing for us was our hitting. In those first 12 games, our guys were trying to hit the ball as hard as they could, as far as they could. We had to make adjustments at the plate to have a better approach. Our defense and pitching has continued to come along as well.”

The Hillbillies advanced out of regional play with a 1-0 win over fifth rated and 23-win Greater Beckley Christian as Jake Adkins got the call on the mound. The senior is 4-2 on the year with a 1.34 ERA and has started in both championship games over the last two years for Man.

“He’s a big kid and experienced,” Vance said of his ace. “He’s a lefty who throws the ball hard enough to get the ball by you and has a good breaking ball. But most importantly, he hits his spots very well.”

Cam Simpson, the starting shortstop, has also been productive on the mound this season for the Hillbillies, posting a 2-4 record and 2.40 ERA. Offensively, Vance referred to his club as ‘streaky’ as that slow start put many of the Hillbillies in deep holes statistically. But as the season has progressed, those batting averages have started to come around.

“We have two kids that are hitting over .300 and the rest of the team is around .250 or so, but that’s on the year as a whole,” Vance said. “Over the last 17 games, it’s a totally different story as they’ve upped their averages by 100-150 points or so and that’s why one of the reasons why we’re still alive.”

Junior first baseman Seth Chapman leads Man with a .333 batting average (.636 in the postseason) with 20 RBIs, while Simpson boasts a .315 average (.500 in the postseason). Tyler Blair is batting .280 overall and .333 in the postseason, while Austin Gent is .240 on the year, but .375 in the postseason.

“Another reason why we’re back to the tournament is our experience – nobody panicked when things weren’t going right for us early,” Vance said. “Our kids have been there and know that the regular season doesn’t mean anything. It’s a very experienced group.”

VIDEO: All baseball state tournament games will be streamed live at the MetroNews Channel of or catch radio broadcasts on stations across West Virginia.

By Garrett Cullen

WV MetroNews

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