Hurricane coach Josh Caldwell (center) has the Redskins in the state tournament for the first time.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Putnam County is becoming a hotbed of high school softball.Both of this year's participants from the Kanawha Valley in the state tournament - Buffalo and Hurricane - hail from the county with just four high schools.The Bison, the two-time defending state champions in Class A, will take on Wheeling Central at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday in the opening round at Jackson Park in Vienna. The Redskins, who will be making their first appearance in school history, will face Wheeling Park at 9:30 a.m. in AAA. (See Page 2B for state tournament pairings.)"It's a great asset to our community,'' said Buffalo coach Darrell Moore of the county's success. "We'll have one heck of a crowd up there for that morning session. There won't be that many school buses left. It's going to be a special time for Putnam County.''
Buffalo has been a perennial contender at states, having also won it all in 2002 and 2004. The Bison (31-4), though, are having a rare season even by their standards - advancing to states and winning 30 games for the third year in a row is a first in the program's history. Buffalo also finished No. 1 in the final state sportswriters' poll."It's special for our program,'' Moore said. "Our program just keeps growing and growing each year.''Hurricane (30-6), which set a school record for wins the past two seasons, had never played in a regional before until this year. The Redskins were third in the final poll, their highest ranking to end a season."It's huge for the program,'' said Hurricane fifth-year coach Josh Caldwell, who also welcomed his first child this spring. "Every year we continue to build on success."For us to finally break through, it's huge to know you can do it and have the confidence you can do it. We eliminated three of the top eight teams in the state. They've worked hard for it. It's definitely an honor to be the one to represent the region. We have to make sure we do a good job representing the region.''The Redskins' road to states hasn't been an easy one as they disposed of No. 4 Lincoln County, No. 2 Cabell Midland and No. 8 St. Albans. Before last year, the seven previous state champions came from Region 4.Hurricane needed all three games of the double-elimination format to get past perennial nemesis Lincoln County in the sectional tournament. The Redskins fell behind Midland 3-0 in the top of the first in the regional semifinals before rallying for the lead then sweating out a 6-5 win as the Knights left two runners on in the top of the seventh. Hurricane shut out SA 2-0, winning for the first time this year when scoring two runs or less. Buffalo seems to be hitting its stride, carrying a 19-game winning streak into this week. After falling at Wheeling Central 11-9 on March 30, the Bison haven't lost to a Class A team since. Buffalo allowed its first runs of the postseason in a 13-4 win at Wahama in the regional semis, then shut out No. 8 Doddridge County 2-0 in the region final.Moore said the sport has come a long way in Putnam in his 20 years as coach. Poca advanced to its first regional in school history last season. And this year, Winfield won 12 games under first-year coach Kelly Montgomery, including a victory over state-tournament qualifier Ripley."I think Putnam County ball is on the rise,'' Moore said. "We've got some good kids coming up in our middle school and Hurricane has a real nice Little League program."They're seeing us playing in the state tournament, and more and more young kids are getting involved at a young age. When we first started, the pitching speed was probably 35 mph. For [Buffalo] to have two pitchers throwing close to 60 now? Since that time it's really come a long way.''
And the county's players are supportive of each other."We went over and watched them play the other night,'' said Moore of Hurricane's regional final. "We probably had more than half of our team cheering them on. They went out on the field and celebrated [with Hurricane]. They're all friends.''Besides Hurricane, the state tournament will have plenty of upstarts.No. 6 Wheeling Park knocked off No. 1 and defending AAA state champion John Marshall in the Region 1 final. No. 10 Ripley, which sports only one senior in the starting lineup, is making an appearance in AAA after a lengthy absence while Jefferson, which failed to crack the final rankings, made it through. In AA, No. 5 James Monroe returns after 16 years and No. 7 Petersburg will be making the trip for the first time in school history. And like Buffalo, there are several state tournament veterans. One of the best matchups will be No. 1 Ritchie County, which won it all in 2011 in AA, playing No. 3 and defending state champion Wayne out of the gate Wednesday. No. 3 Moorefield returns in Class A as the state runner-up, while No. 9 Man is back after moving out of Buffalo's region because of reclassification.Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.