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Hurricane vs St. Albans

Hurricane’s Joel Gardner pitches against St. Albans in the Mountain State Athletic Conference tournament. The two teams open the state tournament Thursday afternoon at Appalachian Power Park.

Whatever happens in Thursday’s baseball state tournament opener between Hurricane and St. Albans at Appalachian Power Park, a Kanawha Valley team — either the Redskins or Red Dragons — will be in the Class AAA championship game for the fourth straight time.

Top-seeded Hurricane (32-1) and No. 4 St. Albans (25-7) square off at 4:30 p.m. in the AAA semifinals at APP, and both will be looking to keep the big-school championship in the Kanawha Valley. The last three AAA state titles have been won by the Interstate 64 rivals.

There was no tournament in 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown, but St. Albans won all the marbles in 2019 and 2017, sandwiched around Hurricane’s championship in 2018.

St. Albans defeated Hurricane in the title games in both of its two championship seasons, defeating the Redskins 5-0 in 2019 and 8-2 in 2017.

Both teams also qualified in the 2018 tournament, when Hurricane won the title as the top seed, but another showdown against St. Albans was averted when the Red Dragons lost 1-0 to Wheeling Park while Hurricane went on to defeat Martinsburg in the semifinals and Park in the finals to win the championship

Rivalry? Yes, you could say that, but Hurricane coach Brian Sutphin and St. Albans coach Rick Whitman both downplayed that notion.

“Obviously the last few years both schools been fortunate to get [to the state tournament], but I don’t know if there’s anything there as far as [a rivalry],” Sutphin said. “It’s been two years since anybody has been [to the state tournament], so we’re looking at two different teams. All teams that get to state tournament have a chance, that’s all you can ask. Any team that gets there has earned their way there.”

That includes No. 2 seed Jefferson (27-3) and No. 3 Bridgeport (32-4), who will play in the other AAA semifinal about 50 minutes after the conclusion of the Hurricane-St. Albans game.

“There’s a mutual respect between coaches, players and communities. They do a great job with their program and we think we do too,” Whitman said. “We’ve won some, they’ve won some, but when you consider how many games they’ve won, I consider it a compliment to be considered their rival.”

Either way, the two teams have elevated the Kanawha Valley into a prep baseball hotbed in the state.

“No question, it’s gotten better,” Whitman said. “Certainly the programs, the fields, the opportunities the kids have, that’s been nice to see. Certainly baseball’s come a long way in the state in general, but certainly in our part of the state.”

Hurricane is riding a 31-game win streak, with the only loss coming in the Redskins’ second game of the season, 4-3 at Parkersburg South on April 15. Five of the wins have come in the postseason, defeating Parkersburg and Parkersburg South (twice) in the Region 4 Section 2 tournament and sweeping Cabell Midland by scores of 7-2 and 4-2 in the best-of-three Region 4 series.

St. Albans had to come through the losers bracket to win its Region 3 Section 1 title, avenging a 7-2 loss to George Washington by taking down the Patriots 9-2 and 10-4. In the Region 3 tournament, the Red Dragons dispatched Oak Hill in two games, winning 5-2 and 9-3.

Neither coach was ready to name a starting pitcher for the semifinal showdown, but each has a deep staff with capable hurlers.

Hurricane’s pitching leaders are junior Ismael Borrero (7-0, 1.45 ERA), senior Joel Gardner (6-0, 1.07 and the only senior on the Redskins roster) and junior Bryson Rigney (6-0, 1.27). St. Albans can choose from junior Will Campbell (7-1, 1.89), sophomore Garrett Comer (34-2, 3.25) and senior Tyson Burke (5-4, 5.21).

Not surprisingly, both teams are loaded with offensive firepower.

The Redskins’ top sticks are Damian Witty (.517 batting average), Ethan Spolarich (.480), Luka Moore (.369, team-high 36 RBI and four home runs), Joel Gardner (.421, 30 RBI, four homers), Rigney (.402, 29 RBI) and Cam Carney (.450).

For St. Albans, senior Drew Whitman, the coach’s son, brings a .481 batting average along with 21 RBI and 39 runs scored. Other top hitters for the Red Dragons are Comer (.381, three home runs, team-high 39 RBI), Burke (.475, 38 RBI), Brady Williams (.397), Trent Short (.391, 31 RBI), and Carson McCoy (.357, 45 runs).

Hurricane’s long win streak includes two wins over St. Albans: 7-2 on May 18 and 7-0 on May 25 in the Mountain State Athletic Conference tournament semifinals.

Sutphin has downplayed the Redskins’ nearly season-long winning streak, while Rick Whitman welcomes the opportunity the end it.

“We’ve taken the approach that if someone’s gonna beat ’em, why not us?” the SA coach said. “Just go and play the best game we can.”

Jefferson vs. Bridgeport

The St. Albans-Hurricane winner advances to Saturday’s 10 a.m. championship game against either Jefferson or Bridgeport, which are both led by veteran coaches with long histories of success.

Jefferson has won a Class AAA state-record 12 championships under Lowery, who has been the Cougars coach since the school’s opening in 1972 and won the school’s most recent title in 2016. He’s won more prep baseball games than any other active prep baseball coach in the country.

Bridgeport is led by Robert Shields, who led the Indians to six consecutive Class AA titles (2014-19) before moving up in classification. The Cougars defeated the Indians 6-1 in a regular-season game in May.

Jefferson’s Cullen Horowicz has a whopping 16 home runs and 41 RBI this season. Bridgeport’s Nate Paulsen has driven in 54 runs in the Indians’ 36 games.