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Derek Taylor: State’s softball dominance has deep roots

Those looking for parity are likely to again be disappointed at the 2014 softball state tournament this week.

Yes, Class AAA Musselman finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in the state in the Daily Mail softball poll, and yes, Ritchie County and Moorefield — at least in terms of their rankings and records — pose legitimate threats to win the crowns in Class AA and Class A, respectively, but don’t be fooled.

High school softball’s locus of power in West Virginia is still in its southwest corner, otherwise known as Region 4.

Last season’s title sweep for the region by Class AAA Hurricane, Class AA Wayne and Class A Buffalo was not actually the norm, but teams currently in Region 4 have won at least two of the three state championships 16 times since the sport was separated into three classes 21 years ago, in 1994.

After years of fighting the objective fight as a result of covering the sport in areas outside Region 4, I conceded two seasons ago that it isn’t even fair to compare regions 1, 2 and 3 to Region 4, an area where the sport of fast-pitch softball remains popular among both genders well beyond high school years. It simply does not enjoy the same recreational popularity in other areas as in Region 4, and that popularity does not become a motivating factor to young players the way it does in southwestern West Virginia.

The results speak for themselves, and when Class AA Herbert Hoover (29-6), Class A Buffalo (27-6) and Class AAA Lincoln County (28-8) take the fields Wednesday at Jackson Park in Vienna, at least two of the schools will likely return home the next evening with state championships to their credit.

For Buffalo, the sport enjoys near-cult status. There’s a legitimate and positive reason a small school such as Buffalo High can steadily produce players such as senior pitcher/shortstop Chelsey Parkins, junior pitcher/shortstop Ali Burdette and sophomore catcher Chase Christy. It has to do with community involvement, not just in terms of paying for facility upgrades — much like at Lincoln County, whose softball field is arguably the finest natural-grass field in the state — but in actual human interaction with young players in the area; the passing along of knowledge from older groups of former players and coaches to the children of the community. Burdette spoke about this phenomenon during the 2014 Best of the Best Tournament in Buffalo.

“Softball’s a huge deal in this community. It’s a tradition that we’ve built. Well, Darrell built it,” Burdette said April 17, referring to Bison coach Darrell Moore.

“The community comes together for softball,” Burdette said. “We have all kinds of clinics just to get the kids out, so everybody gets involved.”

And that is the difference between softball in Region 4 and softball in the rest of the state. It’s not simply a sport that girls participate in to close out the school year. The high school season is a 13-week (from preseason to state tournament) period in which young women play for their high schools together. As soon as the prep season ends most are on the road playing travel ball or working to improve their abilities in a number of different ways.

The scenario has had drastic implications in Lincoln County, an area once so against the consolidation of Hamlin, Duval, Guyan Valley and Harts high schools that its residents fought the state board of education tooth and nail to keep the four Class A schools open as opposed to creating a central, Class AAA school. Not coincidentally, the one place you are guaranteed to see county-wide unity is at a Lincoln County High School softball game.

It is not assured that the three Region 4 winners will each claim state titles in their respective classes. Region 1 champion Ritchie County might perhaps have the best chance at stopping a Hoover title win from happening if for no other reason than that the Huskies are making their first trip to the state tournament since their oldest players were about 9 years old.

Still, a second consecutive sweep by the region is far from out of the question and if it happens, it won’t simply be because Region 4 produces the best softball players or coaches. It’s in large part because softball remains a common way by which older generations communicate with their children in this part of the state.

The trophies that accompany the titles perhaps belong to their communities moreso than in any other prep sport.

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