Chad VanMeter knew he was going to have a pretty good baseball team before the season. But just how good, he couldn't have imagined.VanMeter, the coach at Hampshire, has seen his team rocket to a 17-1 record thus far and the No. 2 spot in the Gazette's Class AAA state ratings.It's pretty heady company for the Trojans, who have never reached the state baseball tournament and who often play second, third or fourth fiddle in the ultra-competitive Eastern Panhandle AAA baseball battles."It's a little surprising,'' VanMeter said. "We knew we had a good team coming back, but we never expected to be 17-1 at this point. Of course, I don't think anyone did.
"We've got a lot of good kids who worked hard in the off-season and played a lot of ball in the summertime. They really put in the time and we're reaping the benefits right now.''Some of the team's top players are senior pitchers Matthew Maiers (5-0, 0.66 ERA) and Josh Crawford (4-0, 2.66) and hitters like junior Shane Ennis (.511, 25 RBIs), Crawford (.500, 17 RBIs), senior Garrett Crawford (.383, 14 RBIs) and sophomore David Delawder (.381, 18 runs).VanMeter realizes his program is lodged in a cutthroat region with traditional powerhouses like Jefferson (10 state titles), Martinsburg (four titles) and, this season especially, Hedgesville and Musselman, who hold down the No. 4 and 8 positions in the AAA state rankings."It's always been that way in the past,'' VanMeter said, "but we felt it as a good opportunity to play against those teams because being the underdog is not a bad thing."Anytime you can make noise and beat them, it's always good for your program. When we beat Musselman and Jefferson on the same day, it was a real boost for our guys and the program.''That red-letter day came last Wednesday, when Hampshire downed Musselman 6-3 and Jefferson 7-5. The Trojans begin this week with a 10-game winning streak.Sectional showdownThere's been a slight twist to the long-running Class AAA sectional rivalry between Nitro and St. Albans.No, they haven't split up the cross-river neighbors under the revised SSAC alignment. But they've added another strong program.Logan has joined the battle in Region 4 Section 2, which begins in one week. It should make for an interesting tussle, as all three teams have spent time in the Gazette AAA state ratings this season.Nitro, of course, is the big dog in recent seasons, having advanced to the state tournament six straight years and taking titles in 2008 and 2010. But the Wildcats (15-10) are in a slump right now, having lost six of their eight games last week to drop out of the ratings.
"It's been frustration,'' said Wildcats coach Steve Pritchard. "This has been without question my most frustrating year at Nitro. Because you and the kids put all this time in and we hit like we just show up on game day. It's embarrassing. It's awful. All those things - and without making anybody sound like they're a bad person, it's just downright frustrating."The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Well, a lot of it is going on right now, and it's all of us. They're good kids. I like where I coach at. But it's just athletics. It's the real world. If you don't get it done, someone else deserves a chance that's working hard, and that's what we've got to do.''Pritchard was downcast following last week's 3-0 home loss to St. Albans, and even the prospect of recalling what happened last year didn't exactly brighten his mood.Last season, Nitro was mercy-ruled by St. Albans 10-0 in five innings in the regular season, but two weeks later swept the Red Dragons in the first two games of the sectional, and was off and running to another state tournament berth.Of course, that Wildcats team had all-state catcher-turned-ace pitcher Korey Dunbar, the state player of the year who now toils for Division I North Carolina."If I could get a Korey Dunbar-type kid to transfer in, we'll be all right,'' Pritchard said with a wry smile. "I hate to say this the wrong way, but everybody now might begin to understand how good Korey Dunbar really was. He pitched the first game of the sectional, he got the win in the regional semifinal, got the win in the regional final, got the win in the state semifinals - all while batting No. 3 and carrying the load offensively.
"We haven't found two, three guys that can equal his production at the plate. We've found guys who equal his production on the mound with strikeouts and ERA and innings pitched. But we haven't found three players to match his stats at the plate. That's the nuts and bolts of it. I think 99 percent of the people in this state said last year when we went in the state tournament, 'Let's find out if it's Korey, or if it's Nitro.' I guess the question is still to be answered.''St. Albans (17-8), meanwhile, experienced an up-and-down week, splitting its six games. The victory over Nitro was pleasing to coach Rick Whitman and his players, but after the events of last year, they'd prefer not to dwell on it."I mean, we haven't won a sectional in six years,'' Whitman said. "If they do [dwell on it], then something's wrong with them."It's just another game on our schedule - no more or less important than yesterday's. You have another game tomorrow, and it's just as important. You've got to play your schedule. It just is what it is. Once sectional time comes, you hope you're better than who you play.''Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org