Throughout the regular season Independence looked like the best team in Class AA, passing nearly every test along the way. The Patriots will enter sectional play as the top overall seed in the region, an honor that doesn’t come lightly. They share that same region with Class AA No. 2 Bluefield and No. 5 Shady Spring, beating both on the way to an 18-1 regular season record.
But the postseason is a different animal.
Indy will have to navigate past a Nicholas County team that boasts a true ace in Rylee Nicholas and two county rivals in Liberty and Shady.
“It should be tough,” Indy head coach Scott Cuthbert said. “We faced Nicholas really early in the season and we faced Shady once and that was a heck of a baseball game. I haven’t seen Liberty play this year – we lost both games due to quarantine.
“But I know they played Shady close one time and they played somebody else pretty close, but anytime you get into sectional play, especially when you’ve got a couple of county teams playing each other, it’s tough. To me it’s a toss up no matter what happens.”
One major advantage the Patriots have on their side is pitching depth.
They don’t boast a true No. 1 ace but they have several players who have pitched in big spots and won big games.
Senior Hunter Schoolcraft is one of them.
As a freshman he came into the sectional championship game against Wyoming East with the bases loaded and no outs in extra innings. Clinging to a small lead, Schoolcraft retired the side without allowing a run to cross to advance to the regional championship.
The rest of the Patriots have pitched pretty well in their own right. The team boasts and ERA of 1.66 with Schoolcraft, Clay Basham and Tanner Sipes all having pitched at least 20 innings this season. All three have ERAs under 2.30 with Basham’s 0.85 ERA leading the pack. The sophomore hurler has allowed just three earned runs in in 24.2 innings of work this year.
“We’ve got a lot of people we can put out on the mound and that always helps,” Cuthbert said. “A few may be better than others, but we don’t really consider us having a true one. We just roll the next guy out there. But with the pitch count rules and the way pitching is if you do get in the loser’s bracket you need every arm you can find.”
Even with the plethora of arms Indy has, Shady has the bats to combat them and has already given Indy a run for its money. The two teams met on May 12 with Indy coming away with a 7-3 win but the score was 2-0 Indy heading into the seventh. Four wild pitches helped Indy score five in the top of the seventh but Shady answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame that could’ve tilted the outcome.
The Tigers enter sectional play with an 18-7 record but two of their seven losses have come to teams in their section. Nicholas County beat them 7-6 and Liberty played them tight in their only meeting, a 5-4 decision in favor of Shady.
After starting the season 0-5, Nicholas County rebounded to finish the season 13-8 and rides a five-game winning streak coming into sectional play. During that streak the Grizzlies have beaten Shady, Liberty, Midland Trail and Class AAA teams in Oak Hill and Beckley.
Liberty, the No. 4 seed enters sectional play at 2-13, but closes losses make them a dangerous team in a double elimination bracket.
“We’re all starting 0-0, so the records go out the window,” Cuthbert said. “It’s tough, but the motto is just survive and advance moving forward.”
Region 3, Section 2
All games start at 6 p.m. at the higher seed’s venue
Tuesday, June 1
Game 1: No. 4 Liberty at No. 1 Independence
Game 2: No. 3 Nicholas County at No. 2 Shady Spring
Wednesday, June 2
Game 3: Game 1 winner (Liberty/Independence) vs. Game 2 winner (Nicholas County/Shady)
Game 4: Game 1 loser (Liberty/Indy) vs. Game 2 loser (Nicholas/Shady)
Thursday, June 3
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner
Friday, June 4
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner
Saturday, June 5
Game 7: If necessary, 1 p.m.