By DEREK TAYLOR
DAILY MAIL PREPS EDITOR
The situation is quite familiar for Herbert Hoover softball coach Missy Smith.
A year ago, the Huskies entered the Class AA Region 4 semifinals with a 23-3 record to face a Sissonville squad dominated by freshmen and was just three games over the .500 mark. Still, the Indians emerged with a 7-3 win to set the stage for what is becoming a renaissance of sorts for the school’s once-dominant softball program.
Thursday, the Huskies (26-6) travel to Sissonville (21-9) as the top-ranked team in Class AA carrying more than a slight chip on their shoulder into another Region 4 semifinal at 6 p.m.
“We talked about it. It’s something we’ve discussed and we haven’t let them forget about it,” Smith said Wednesday. They also beat us on our home field the last time we played, so we know we’ve got something to prove.
“If you’re a competitive person and you come to this game, you should have a lot of fun,” Smith said. “This is the kind of game you circle on your calendar.”
The continued growth of sophomore pitcher/third baseman Alexee Haynes has largely fueled Sissonville’s success this season. The 2013 Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year and University of Pittsburgh commitment will likely get the start Thursday to face Hoover ace and two-time Class AA All-State selection Allison Rager, a junior who has committed to Morehead State.
Rager was the 2012 Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year.
“We’re a really young team. Over half of my starting lineup are sophomores,” Sissonville coach Niki Gross said. “We had high expectations last year but didn’t quite meet them. This year we wanted to win 20 games and we’ve done that, but we also want to get to the state tournament.
“We’re two wins away from reaching that goal,” Gross said.
Sissonville sophomore center fielder Taylor Casto could also see time in the circle should Haynes run into trouble. As Rager goes, however, so goes Hoover, and not just insofar as pitching is concerned. The right-hander is also the team’s leading hitter by more than 100 batting average points. She has hit a team-high 10 home runs and is third among area players – and tops among those whose teams are still alive — with 51 RBI.
“She’s a large component of our success, but it takes all of us to play well,” Smith said. “When she’s pitching well the defense is good. We’ve been fortunate enough that the girls have really bought into the team concept.
“If No. 3 in the order isn’t getting it done then No. 4 will,” Smith added. “If the top of the order isn’t, then the bottom will. If they’re having a bad game someone will step up for them. Everybody in that dugout believes you can get that hit and get those runs in.”
Haynes, likewise, leads Sissonville in hitting, home runs and RBI, but the Indians appear to be more balanced entering the game. Catcher Katelyn Linville, third baseman Taylor Legg and first baseman Abbey Jordan have each taken turns coming up with the big hit to win games throughout the year, as has Casto.
“I have confidence in all nine of my batters. I can move them around, and where I’ve had them all year may not be where I have them (Thursday),” Gross said. “They can all hit, they can all bunt. It’s not like our weakest hitter is at the No. 9 spot.
“It’s really helped for us to have that,” Gross said. “There’s been a couple of games where the bottom of the lineup has won games for us.”
The teams split their regular season series, with each team winning on the road. Hoover beat Sissonville 6-0 on April 8 then the Indians returned the favor to the tune of a 13-4 final April 16 in Falling Rock. The winner will play host to either two-time defending state champion Wayne (16-6) or Region 4, Section 3 champion Scott (15-14) on May 22.
Neither team’s ace pitched in the game it lost to its rival during the regular season.
In other regional semifinals today:
South Charleston (16-14) at Ripley (19-7) — This Class AAA Region 3 semifinal isn’t exactly a surprise given the relative strengths — or lack thereof — of their respective sections. Nevertheless, with the strong coaching acumen of Annette Olenchick, SC has recovered quickly from the graduation loss of former Kanawha Valley Player of the Year Alli Burdette and diversified to receive more contribution from numerous players.
Pitcher Amanda McDonald has held her own as SC’s ace while Olivia Orcutt-Lazo and Kelly Knuckles have provided some pop at the plate. SC is still young but might not be as big of an underdog as records might indicate here.
Ripley finished third in the Mountain State Athletic Conference and has won eight of its last 10 games. Senior pitcher Chelsey Hager is among the state’s better hurlers, while first baseman Ashley Mellinger leads the Vikings’ offensive attack.
The winner will travel to play either Shady Spring (9-14) or Greenbrier East (17-3) in the Region 3 final next week.
Lincoln County (25-8) at Cabell Midland (22-8) — The Panthers, now in their second year since leaving the MSAC, kept a low profile through much of the season but have won seven straight.
Senior pitcher Brooke West appears as strong as she has in the circle since early in 2012, when back problems slowed her. Junior pitcher Faith Huffman has supplanted West as Lincoln County’s ace in name, but with West in form coach Rod Hoover has more than a capable Plan B in a single-elimination situation.
Midland has freshman Olivia Canterbury, junior Jenna Marsh and WVU Tech-bound senior Kyla Shull to throw at the Panthers. The Knights’ lineup has a slight edge in run production (6.4 runs per game to Lincoln County’s 6.1).
The winner will play at either Point Pleasant (24-8) or Logan (27-4) in the Region 4 final next week.
Wahama (14-15) at Buffalo (24-7) — The Bison are 14-1 against Class A competition, their lone loss a 3-1 setback at the hands of Region 3 semifinalist Sherman on April 5. Since that day, which saw the team fall to 1-5, Buffalo won 20 consecutive games, avenged the loss to the Tide with two wins in which they outscored their opponent 20-0 and put together an 11-1 mark against semifinalists playing Thursday in three different classes.
The All-State trio of seniors Chelsey Parkins and Katie Higginbotham and junior Ali Burdette swept two regular season games from the White Falcons by scores of 10-0 and 9-0. The winner will play either Williamstown (19-8) or Wirt County (20-8) on the road in the Region 4 final.
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at email@example.com or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.