Austin Thomas is hitting .434 for Herbert Hoover and has driven in 39 runs.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six years ago, Herbert Hoover used a semifinal victory against Independence at the state baseball tournament as a springboard to capture its first state championship.
Now the Patriots get a chance to return the favor.
The same two programs lock up at about 7:15 tonight in a Class AA first-round game at Appalachian Power Park, with the winner advancing to Saturday's finals. Hoover (29-4) enters the contest as the No. 1 team in the Gazette's state ratings, three spots ahead of Indy (21-9).
Each team is seeking its second state crown, with Independence's coming in 1990.
While Hoover has been flexing its muscles pretty much all season, with separate win streaks of 16, five and seven games, the Patriots snapped out of a midseason lull in which they saw their record dip as low as 10-7.
"The last few weeks of the season we started hitting the ball a whole lot better,'' said Independence coach Scott Cuthbert. "We hit the ball pretty decent at times this year but we didn't hit together a whole lot. Our first loss to Liberty [Raleigh], we had more hits than they did but we left nine guys in scoring position.
"We've played good defense all year and that's kept us in ballgames, but I don't know how to explain [the improved hitting]. A week before the end of the regular season, the bats came together and got hot at the right time.''
After scoring 10 or more runs just four times in the first five weeks of the season, the Patriots hit double figures six times in a stretch of seven games to conclude the regular season.
Hoover, of course, has been stroking the ball effectively all season, chalking up 10 or more runs in a game 20 times.
The Huskies' fielding may not have looked tournament-ready in a 14-9 tuneup loss to Charleston Catholic on Monday - a game in which they committed eight errors - but they continued to hit the ball, leading coach Brian Young to believe they're ready for the tournament.
"We didn't look real sharp there,'' Young said, "but it's been a long season and they've come with a good work ethic and a good attitude. I think when they show up they'll know what's ahead of them.
"The thing that will help us out a little bit is being there last year. It gives them experience to know what to expect when they go down there.''
Hoover made it to the finals last year before losing 1-0 to Wyoming East, like Independence a Region 3 contender.
The Huskies are expected to throw junior Tristan Fields (7-1, 1.84 ERA), though Cody Bowen (6-1, 1.79) looked good against Wayne in the regional finals. Cuthbert plans on using Brian Sexton (6-3, 3.09), with Jeremy McGinnis (5-0, 1.03) in reserve.
Each team has strong hitters throughout the lineup.
Hoover sports seven players with batting averages of .370 or better - Corey Bird (.477, 51 stolen bases), Ryan Shamblin (.446, 39 RBIs), Austin Thomas (.434, 39 RBIs), Fields (.424, 42 RBIs), Bowen (.413, 33 RBIs), Shaun Dotson (.386, 42 RBIs) and Hunter White (.371).
Indy counters with hitting from Drew D'Angelo (.509, 57 runs), Wyatt Adkins (.444, 34 RBIs), Andrue Hughart (.416, 35 RBIs), McGinnis (.392, 34 RBIs) and Brad Huffman (.330, 32 RBIs).
Cuthbert feels like his team has survived, and at times thrived against, a difficult schedule dotted with Class AAA opponents, preparing his players for this weekend.
"We went to the St. Albans tournament,'' Cuthbert said, "and played them and Parkersburg South. We've played George Washington, Greenbrier East twice, Princeton . . . We've had a pretty rough schedule. To survive that, I think, made us better toward the end of the year.
"For a stretch of two weeks, every time you turned around, if we weren't playing a triple-A team we were playing Wyoming East or Liberty or some of the other better teams in this area.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.