MAN — The Man High School softball team has been no stranger over the years to big games and tough opponents.
The Lady Billies have always seemed to challenge some of the best teams around.
For a Class A team, Man usually plays one of the tougher schedules in the state as the Lady Billies are often times taking on some of the best squads in Class AA and AAA as well.
That has always seemed to have prepared the Lady Billies.
This year is no exception.
Man has navigated another tough schedule and are Vienna bound again after blanking Fayetteville 16-0 in last Friday night’s Class A Region 3 championship game.
The victory moved Man into this week’s Class A state tourney where the Lady Billies (20-5) are scheduled to open state tournament play on Wednesday at noon against Moorefield (26-3). Two-time defending Class A state champion Buffalo (31-4) battles Wheeling Central (21-8) on Wednesday at 9:45 a.m. in the other Class A state tourney matchup at Vienna.
The difficult schedule has prepared Man well for the post-season.
The Lady Billies beat Class A top 10 team Sherman twice this season, including a 6-5 extra-inning win over the Tide in the Class A regional semifinals at Seth.
Man also split during the regular season with Class AAA county rival Logan, swept 2A Westside and also beat Class AA teams Poca and Wyoming East.
Man veteran coach Randy Epperly said the Lady Billies’ tough schedule helped keep his team sharp.
“We’ve always played a tough schedule,” Epperly said. “Those kinds of games prepare you well (for the post-season). It’s paid off if you look at what we’ve done the last few years. We’ve won 16 straight sectional titles at Man High School. We haven’t lost in a sectional since 1997. When we were Double-A we lost some regional finals but we’ve always won our section. I know our sections have not always been the strongest but that’s quite an accomplishment. We’ve always played teams like Logan and Scott and have played in the Best of the Best to try to get better as we go along. Sometimes, of course, you don’t play well and take your lumps but that’s the nature of the beast.”
The Lady Billies have put together an amazing run.
In addition to the above-mentioned 16 straight sectional championships dating back to the late 1990s, Man has also made 14 straight trips to the regional title game — either in Class AA or Single-A.
The string began back in 2000 when then Double-A Man was a heavy underdog going into the regional final at county rival Chapmanville, which was coming off its first ever state championship in 1999.
Man had lost to Chapmanville twice during the 2000 regular season but pulled off the 1-0 upset over the Lady Tigers to advance to the state tourney.
At state, Man, then led by senior pitcher Shanda Ross, went 1-2.
The next year in 2001, Man reached the 2A regional title game again but lost to Scott 2-1.
In 2002, 2003 and 2004, Man made three more Double-A regional final appearances but lost each time to statebound Shady Spring.
Then in 2005, Man was moved down in classification to Class A and reached the regional final again before falling 4-0 to Hamlin and seeing its season come to an end at 18-8.
The next year in 2006, the Lady Billies were in the Class A regional title game once again and lost 5-2 in eight innings to Harts, which was led by then freshman pitcher Andi Williamson, who is now the senior pitching ace at NCAA Tournament bound and Conference USA champion Marshall University. Man closed out 20-8 that year.
In 2007, the Lady Billies saw their season come to a close at 19-7 after bowing 6-4 in 10 innings to homestanding Buffalo in the Single-A region championship game.
In Man’s state championship season of 2008, the Lady Billies knocked off the Buffalo Bison 5-1 in the regional final.
The Lady Billies then captured their second straight state title in 2009 behind the arm of all-state pitcher Marlena Frye. Man finished the season 23-0 and rode a 46-game winning streak into the 2010 season.
Man would then fall to South Harrison in the 2010 state championship game as the Lady Billies were attempting to win a third straight state title.
Man has been led this season by its battery of senior pitcher Taylor Tomblin and catcher Summer Sword. Many others have played key roles, including four-year starter in center Emilee Osborne, shortstop Cari Blair, DH Tabby Ferguson, outfielders Kelly Grimmett and Elizabeth Dickerson, third baseman Casey Albright, second baseman Micayla Gibson and first baseman Madison Keffer.
“We’ve haven’t had anyone who has absolutely hit the ball extremely well,” Epperly said. “We’ve had different people come up with key hits when we needed them. Just like the game against Sherman Tabitha Ferguson and Casey Albright came up with the key hits. In some of the other games it might have been Summer Sword, Taylor Tomblin or Madison Keffer. It’s been a team effort. We don’t have anyone hitting with a great average, we’ve just had people come through in these key games.”
Tomblin has been Man’s pitching ace for the last three years, taking over the mantle from Frye.
With a 14-inning-per-day pitching limit, Taylor was pressing into pitching duties as a freshman back in 2010 at the state tournament as Man fought its way out of the loser’s bracket.
That year, Man opened the state tourney with a 2-1 upset loss to St. Marys in the first game. The Lady Billies then won 10-0 over Fayetteville, 5-1 over St. Marys and blanked South Harrison 6-0 in the championship round to force a winner-take-all final in which Man lost to South Harrison in the title game — its third game of the day.
Man ended the 2010 season 26-7 after going 23-0 in 2009 and winning the state championship with a 17-9 victory over Cameron. Man was 24-3 in 2008 and also won the state title by downing Wheeling Central 7-3 in the finals.