Teams getting ready as baseball, softball seasons arrive in Ohio
HUNTINGTON -- As the tarps are rolled up and the lines are chalked on baseball and softball diamonds across Southern Ohio, only one thing is for certain: the Ohio Valley Conference is wide open.
Fairland and Rock Hill have enjoyed domination in baseball over the past few seasons, but Fairland was upset in the first round of the playoffs last year, not making it to district competition, and Rock Hill was dropped by neighboring Oak Hill in the second round of district play. Chesapeake also exited in the second round. Coal Grove bowed out in the first round of district competition.
So, for the OVC, it's back to the drawing board as teams get ready to slug it out for conference domination once again and hopefully take their teams farther in the playoffs.
Fairland coach Bryan Ward said he believes the league is on a fairly level playing field, when he assessed the competition.
"For the last few years, it's been either us or Rock Hill, but I think we've both stepped back a bit while Chesapeake and South Point have come up a bit; they're building at Coal Grove, too," Ward said. "I feel like this year, there are four or five teams that can win this league."
Ward certainly counts his Dragons among those teams that can win the OVC, though Fairland will have to make up for the loss of Alex Thackston, a lefty starter who threw over 80 mph. Thackston graduated last spring and is spending this baseball season as a freshman member of the Marshall Thundering Herd squad.
"We want to make a deeper run, and we've got a little more depth on the team this year," Ward said. "Last year, I only had about 10 guys I was comfortable with, and when you're playing day-in and day-out, an injury can cost you five or six games.
"This year I've got about 14 guys who can play at the varsity level."
Other area teams include Ironton, Symmes Valley and Wheelersburg.
Ironton has a new coach, Larry Goodwin, a former All-Ohio player for the Fighting Tigers. Symmes Valley is a defending champion in the Southern Ohio Conference and returns most of its players.
Wheelersburg is defending the Division III state title.
Parity is also evident among softball teams.
Last year, Fairland, Chesapeake and South Point all finished 1-1 against each other.
The Dragons made it the farthest in playoff competition, losing in the district finals to Lucasville Valley, which went on to win the region.
"I still feel, overall this year, it will be fairly competitive," said Fairland softball coach Joe Auxier. "I think it will come down to us, Rock Hill and South Point."
Again, Coal Grove, Chesapeake and Symmes Valley might have something to say about that before everything is decided.
Fairland just got ace pitcher and heavy bat Chandler Fulks back after she put together a basketball all-state honorable mention season. The Dragons are also trying to work their best hitter and fielder, Janie Phillips, back into playing shape after she re-aggravated an ACL tear she suffered between her freshman and sophomore seasons.
Outside of the OVC, Ironton is trying to make a mark in softball as an independent.
Coach Marissa Fields, who played for the Fighting Tigers in the 1980s, is trying to bring Ironton softball up to speed.
"We've never had much of a softball tradition here," she said. "Our goal is to have another 20-win season, and work hard to hopefully win a sectional, and certainly to make it to district."
The Fighting Tigers have a true player in Rebecca Potter, a shortstop who has committed to the University of Dayton.
But more than that, for the first time, they have a real sense of team, Fields said.
"We had 24 girls come out this year, and this is the first year our program has had a junior varsity squad," she said. "Our biggest strength is that we're a team. These girls are out there to win, and they leave the outside drama off the field."