For the last several seasons, late May has been Nitro's heyday.The Wildcats will be gunning for their sixth straight regional championship berth tonight when they host Parkersburg South in a battle of ranked teams in the Class AAA Region 4 semifinals at Brandon Matthew Sneed Field. First pitch is set for 6:30.Nitro coach Steve Pritchard acknowledged that his team is used to winning at this time of year."I think it's huge,'' Pritchard said. "The kids have bought into the tradition we've built.
"Actually, we gave them a pretty good talking-to the last time we played South [a 6-3 loss] about not keeping up their end of the program. When we're mentally and physically there, name one time we've lost. We haven't been able to come up with that [answer] either. We'll go as far as attitude takes us. I really, really like the way our kids are playing right now. We scored 26 runs in our two [regular-season] games last week. The last four games, the kids have played hard and played with enthusiasm.''South (25-11), the No. 6 team in the Gazette's state ratings, presents No. 7 Nitro (24-9) with a very defined challenge.The Patriots don't tear the cover off the ball - they feature just one regular with a batting average above .333 in Dustin Helmic (.376, 45 total bases). South relies instead on a balanced pitching effort to keep it in most games.South can throw arms like Jacob Braniff (7-2, 2.88 ERA), Wes Mitchem (6-3, 3.10), Brad Brubaker (5-1, 3.37) or A.J. Easter (4-1, 1.01)."We don't have anybody real dominant,'' said South coach Matt Null, "but we've got three, four guys who know how to pitch, and with the bat changes - and the ball staying in the park - it's helped us to be successful.''Pritchard, who has split a pair of games against South this season, agreed with the assessment about the Patriots' pitching."We've seen several of their pitchers,'' Pritchard said, "and they all threw about the same. None of them are overpowering. Matt made the comment earlier that it doesn't matter who pitches for them - they're all about the same. When you win 20 games, that's a compliment. I tend to think maybe we'll see the Brubaker kid, but who knows?''Nitro is also keeping its choice of pitcher a secret. The Wildcats have relied on either their all-state catcher, Korey Dunbar (2-2, 0.52, 70 K's in 402/3 innings), to take the mound or sophomore Ryan McDonough (8-1, 2.33, 60 K's in 48 innings)."We'll do what we think gives us our best chance to get to the state tournament,'' Pritchard said. "We know who we're going to pitch. We'll let Parkersburg South show up to find out.''Parkersburg South figures to try to manufacture a few runs against whomever Nitro starts. The Patriots have not hit a home run all season and 85 percent of their hits are singles."Everybody on our team knows we're a very small team,'' Null said. "Anybody who watches us play knows were predominantly little guys who like to run and hit and bunt - old-fashioned baseball. We really enjoy playing that way. The kids believe in it, and it's worked for us so far.''
Null expects to see Dunbar pitching for Nitro. Dunbar worked a complete game against St. Albans in the first game of the sectionals."We anticipate facing Dunbar,'' Null said. "We anticipate having to beat a guy who throws the ball 85, 88 miles an hour. That's how they beat us the first game. As soon as they get the lead in the sixth inning, he's in. We believe we'll be prepared.''Other top hitters for South are Jacob Wilcox (.319), Mitchem (.318) and Clay Walters (team-high 27 RBIs).For Nitro, Dunbar leads the offense with a .453 average, eight homers and 33 RBIs and is followed by Dylan Slack (.405, 37 RBIs), Evan Eich (.352) and McDonough (28 RBIs, 22 stolen bases).With today's forecast calling for a good chance of thunderstorms, Pritchard has already received permission to switch the game to Hurricane's turf field if the weather remains tricky.Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com