HAMLIN, W.Va. — Chances like these don’t present themselves too often in the real world.
Lincoln County (27-8) enters Thursday’s Class AAA Region 4 softball championship game at Point Pleasant (25-8) with an opportunity to not just advance to the state tournament but to continue the quest for what would be a storybook ending for one of the legends of the school’s formative years.
“It would just be an amazing feeling. To be able to win it your freshman year and your senior year, I mean, that’s like the best of both worlds,” senior pitcher/first baseman Brooke West said Tuesday in preparation for the 6 p.m. title game.
The winner of the Region 4 championship has gone on to win the state title in nine of the last 10 years. With that dominance by the region is a caveat: only once in the last decade has a school won the state — or even regional — championship in consecutive years.
When West stormed onto the scene by leading Lincoln County to the 2011 Class AAA state championship, it appeared that a new era might be dawning for West Virginia high school softball and for her home county. The Panthers, which came into existence only as the result of a tumultuous and unpopular consolidation in 2005 that saw the close of Hamlin, Guyan Valley, Duval and Harts high schools, finally had a winner after struggling for success in nearly every sport but softball.
West, a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher who was then a freshman, appeared to be a savior of athletic sorts for an area searching for a new sports identity following the closure of its former, familiar schools and their teams.
By the time that the Mountain State Athletic Conference playoffs rolled around in 2012, however, West was barely visible on the Lincoln County roster. Chronic back problems that had plagued her most of her life had flared up, and she spent the rest of her sophomore season on the shelf. With the unforeseen rise to power of sectional rival Hurricane that same season and the claiming of the 2013 state title by a Redskins team dominated by underclassmen, it appeared like West’s glory days might have been among her earliest in a Panthers uniform.
Yet here she is, and perhaps pitching better at the moment than at any time during her prep career. A 1-0 shutout of Hurricane in the Region 4, Section 4 championship series eliminated the hard-hitting defending champs, and Lincoln County topped Cabell Midland 6-1 to advance to the regional final.
“In my opinion, where it’s getting to the last little bit here I’m kind of pushing myself,” West said. “I’ve been having hand problems, too. I have all kinds of problems, and I’ve been trying to take it easy on my back too, but I’d say I’ve been pitching pretty good.”
West is apprehensive to give herself credit but the numbers speak for themselves. After the regional semis she was 14-4 with a 1.25 ERA and 111 strikeouts. She was hitting .518 with seven home runs and 37 RBI, mostly in a role that was new for her in 2014: that of the Panthers’ leadoff hitter. Former All-State center fielder Morgan Hutchison graduated in 2013 and formerly filled that role for the Panthers.
“I’ve always thought leadoff was supposed to be kind of a fast person,” West said with a laugh. “At first I was nervous, but now I’ve worked myself into it and it’s just kind of a daily routine.”
Lincoln County coach Rod Hoover said West has matured in her mental approach to the game, and that has made her a more effective pitcher.
“I think she’s developed as a pure pitcher than what she was as a freshman,” Hoover said. “I think she’s a smarter pitcher.”
Panthers assistant coach Tommy Barrett agreed, adding that her trials with back injuries forced her to evolve.
“Knowing that she’s not a power pitcher by all means has been big. Her off-speed, her junk and her spin pitches is what works to keep (batters) off-balance, and she’s done a great job of that,” Barrett said.
Perhaps the biggest boost to West’s on-field success in the last three seasons — and especially in 2014 — has been the pitching of junior Faith Huffman. A right-hander, Huffman took over as Lincoln County’s ace near the end of 2012 and has allowed West to rest when necessary in each of the past three seasons.
“It’s a great feeling to know that she’s going to be there,” West said. “She’s a great pitcher. She works well and has great movement (on her pitches). It’s just always good to have her there.”
Though she downplays her role, Huffman’s is much more than that of a fill-in. She finished semifinal week with a 10-4 record with six saves, a 1.75 ERA and 124 strikeouts.
“As a freshman I kind of had a lot of nerves, and I think it showed,” Huffman said. “But after a while I calmed down and now I’m used to it.
“I think it really helps our team because we aren’t riding on one sole person,” Huffman said. “We always know that either one of us can step up and we can win any ballgame we’re in.”
West and Huffman present a headache for many teams, as their styles are almost polar opposite. West, the lefty, focused more on her change-up and drop ball while Huffman relies more on a rise ball and a curve, she said. Lincoln County has frequently changed pitchers mid-game for the purpose of changing the look opponents see in attempt to force an adjustment.
“We have as much in Faith when she’s on the mound as we have in Brooke,” Hoover said. “She’s a different type of pitcher, and when you mix the two together, it’s a tough combination.”
The Panthers and Big Blacks did not meet in the regular season. Lincoln County enters the game having won 10 consecutive games and 12 of its last 14.
Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at email@example.com or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.