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Paul Boggs: SW softball seniors say 'Why Not Us'

May 29—Senior members of the 2024 South Webster High School softball squad are, from left, Ashlee Spence, Bella Claxon, Bre Potters, Skylar Zimmerman and Ava Messer

Ed Litteral — Daily Times

SOUTH WEBSTER — Okay, so South Webster won finally against its archenemy and longtime nemesis — that albatross named Wheelersburg no longer clutching around its neck.

But hey, these Jeep senior softballers say: "Why Not Us" win the Division III state tournament?

Indeed, after all, if you sacrilegiously believe in rankings, if the Jeeps can dethrone the top-ranked team in the state and the two-time defending Division III state champions, then why not number two be next in line?

For the SWHS softball squad, spearheaded by its five seniors, that's their mentality and approach —as the Jeeps compete in the annual state tournament for the first time, facing regular state qualifier South Range in Thursday's semifinals at Akron's historic Firestone Stadium.

First pitch between the 26-3 Jeeps, and the 28-3 Raiders, is set for 5:30 p.m.

South Webster, with its five seniors, won the regional in softball for the first time in school history —adding to the school's first-ever regional title in volleyball just three years ago.

But while the Jeeps were the regional volleyball favorite in 2021, they were overwhelming underdogs by most observers' expectations last Friday —when they faced then 21-2, three-time defending Region 11 champion and back-to-back state champion Wheelersburg.

And, even with the Jeeps returning their ENTIRE roster from last season's Region 11 runner-up unit to the Pirates, Wheelersburg "wasn't supposed to lose" this contest —given the results of the previous three-plus meetings.

Wheelersburg blanked South Webster 13-0 in that regional final, then turned a 10-0 five-inning mercy-rule rout in the two teams' first meeting this year at Wheelersburg —before a 14-3 decision on April 29 at South Webster.

In both games, the Pirates erupted for one inning of at least seven runs —including seven in the fourth frame for the first, and eight in the final stanza in the second.

But as they say, the third time is the charm —and the Jeeps and sophomore pitcher Jaiden White withstood Wheelersburg's barrage, limiting the powerful Pirate offense to only three runs on seven hits with no walks.

The end result, thanks to senior Ashlee Spence singling to centerfield and scoring Skylar Zimmerman in the top of the seventh, saw South Webster upset the powerhouse Pirates 4-3 —at Ohio University's Softball Field.

Three Jeep seniors —Zimmerman, Bella Claxon and Ava Messer —spoke to The Portsmouth Daily Times on Tuesday about finally slaying the Ohio Division III giant.

"It was amazing. It was incredibly surreal all day Saturday after we won. But we went into that game believing that it could happen, whether anybody else believed it or not. Even before the game when they (Pirates) were warming up, just watching them we still felt really good about ourselves and we never stopped believing," said Claxon. "You could feel it as the game went on. This wasn't just some vision that we had, it's a reality. As that feeling was growing, we could all feel the excitement in the dugout. When we accomplished it, it was still just this real surreal feeling. We had that goal in mind, but to actually achieve it to get this experience, it's just insane."

For those into counting, until Friday, it's been at least over a decade since South Webster last defeated Wheelersburg in softball —as the seniors said they had NEVER defeated the Pirates.

Claxon claimed, with a slight laugh, "since we were little kids on".

But while the wins over Wheelersburg have been nary, these Jeeps played the Pirates tough for the majority of the two matchups — doomed by one inning in the latter stages.

On Friday, White retired 13 Pirates in a row at one point —and South Webster didn't commit a single error behind her.

As it turned out, an earned run apiece in innings one, two, four and finally seven was enough to spur the upset —sending shockwaves throughout the rest of the Ohio prep softball world.

"It's obviously great. Everybody said we couldn't do it. Getting mercy-ruled twice before this game really said we couldn't do it, but for some reason, I woke up that morning and I said we're winning. Everybody else had the exact same mindset, and that's why we won," said Messer. "It's amazing and a feeling like no other honestly."

The Jeeps, dating back close to 10 years and especially in 2018, were the proverbial bridesmaids to the Pirates —as that summer saw Wheelersburg win the Little League World Series.

Several Pirate players were on that club, as was Spence, who later transferred to South Webster.

But as Zimmerman said, South Webster won the most important matchup of all.

"We always knew Wheelersburg was super good. We were always runner-up to them during Little League tournaments and things. To beat them our senior year, when it matters most to go to state, it's very exciting and it feels like an accomplishment. We finally did it, we did it on our last chance to do it, and on our biggest chance to do it. It was an amazing experience. It was a full circle moment," said Zimmerman. "We've always been like a family and (SWHS 7th-year head softball coach) Andy (Messer) has coached us since we were little. So doing it all together, it was very exciting."

Claxon commented that she and her Jeep teammates knew they had it in them to take down The 'Burg.

"When we played them at home the second time, they broke it open in the seventh inning. We were pretty close with them, but we knew from that game we could hang with them. This time, we wanted to do even better. We trusted our abilities, we knew Jaiden (White) is good, we knew our hitting has been good. We just knew we couldn't play into their game. Because honestly, they are incredibly talented and very good, but they are also very good at the mental game of it," she said. "We wanted to go in with our own strong mentality to overcome theirs and make them play into our game."

Claxon and Zimmerman were on that 2021 Division IV Region 15 championship squad, and were regular rotation contributors — while juniors Makayla Raynard and Lauren Kaltenbach were freshmen then and served as reserves.

For Claxon's money, now having been part of two regional title teams in two sports, she said softball —given the Jeeps' history against the Pirates —probably prevails.

"It's just as sweet if not sweeter, just because knowing the history that we've had with Wheelersburg. To be able to do this as our last thing, that's definitely something that might be more sentimental to us," she said. "Both feelings were amazing, but I think in volleyball we knew nothing was going to stop us from getting there (regional championship) from the beginning of the season. Of course, we had this goal for softball at the beginning of the season, but we also knew it was going to be very difficult."

Which, of course, is ultimately — and exactly — what the state tournament is.

South Range returns —having lost to Wheelersburg 6-1 a season ago in the semifinals.

Per the Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association statewide final poll, the Pirates placed atop —while the Raiders were the Division III runner-up.

Oak Harbor, at 27-2, finished sixth in that particular poll —and faces 23-6 Liberty Union in the first semifinal for Thursday.

The Division III state championship tilt is set for 12:45 p.m. on Saturday.

These Jeeps know, and do believe, they have a chance.

"It's exciting to make it to state, and exciting to know we do have a chance at winning it too," said Zimmerman.

"If Wheelersburg was supposed to be the number-one team in the state, we've already done that too," added Claxon. "So why can't we go up there and win it all? If they were supposed to win it all, and we beat them, then why can't we?"

Messer, meanwhile, minced words not once.

"I'm here to win it all. My approach is not 'hey why not us', but that it WILL be us," she said. "Nobody but us."

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at pboggs@aimmediamidwest.com, or on X @paulboggssports © 2024 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved