MASON, W.Va. — Just like last year, the Wahama baseball coaching staff is heading into summer with all smiles.
Every season has it’s ups and downs, but for the last two springs the Wahama baseball team has finished at the top of the state. The White Falcons claimed a 5-4 victory over Wheeling Central in Saturday’s WVSSAC Class A state championship game, earning the school’s fourth baseball title and their second straight.
“I am truly blessed to have been able to experience this as many times as I have,” 12th-year Wahama head coach Tom Cullen said. “Without (coach Ron Bradley and coach Phil Hoffman) I probably don’t and that’s the way I look at it.”
After ending a 16-year regional title and state title drought last year, the bullseye was squarely on the backs of the Red and White this spring, something the 2015 White Falcons didn’t have to deal with.
“This year, there was more pressure to do it again,” Cullen said. “When we won the Gilmer County game, it was more of a relief than excitement. Last year it all just kind of came together, we kept getting better from the beginning right on through and after a while we thought, ‘we have a shot at this’.”
After a 25-7 2015 in which Wahama rolled to the state title with a 7-0 victory over Man, there were no more doubters, and the White Falcons were underdogs to no one in 2016.
“Last year, I know I for one was frustrated that we were winning a lot of games and it seemed like we couldn’t get any recognition throughout the state,” coach Bradley said. “We couldn’t even get in the top-10 and I think the kids kind of took a little offense to that. This year we started out no. 1 in the polls and we were no. 1 through most of the season.”
The pressure to make it to state in back-to-back seasons didn’t rest solely on the players for Wahama, as coach Hoffman explained.
“From a coaching aspect we all have different roles,” Hoffman said. “We all work well together, but it was a grind. There was a lot of pressure, not just on the kids, but from a coaching perspective. We had a lot of pressure to prepare these kids. We were absolutely tough on them, sometimes we pushed them beyond their limits and sometimes they faltered. But, if they could deal with coach Bradley and I, with coach Cullen mediating along the way, they were going to be alright come tournament time.”
Coach Cullen also credits his assistant coaches as main factors in the ability for WHS to repeat.
“I seen it happen to the ‘97 team and the ‘99 team, they let the pressure get to them when they were trying to get back to the state,” Cullen said. “Thanks to coach Bradley and coach Hoffman pushing this group, they pushed right through it.”
One of Wahama’s biggest advantages in getting back to the final four were the the fact that the pitching duo of senior Mason Hicks and junior Philip Hoffman were both back from last year.
“I can’t believe that there’s another Class A high school that has two pitchers as good as Philip and Mason,” Cullen said. “If you put their stats together you’ll not find anyone who’s stats are better in Class A, not even close. I don’t thing there’s anyone in Class AAA that has stats to match Philip’s.”
For the second straight year, Hoffman pitched the regional semifinal and state semifinal for WHS, while Hicks pitched both the regional and state finals. The duo combined for a 17-7 record on the mound this spring with 263 strikeouts. Hoffman was the captain on the Class A all-state first team, while Hicks was a second team all-state player.
Other returnees from last spring include starters Nyles Riggs, Jared Oliver, Ricky Kearns, Dalton Kearns, Jared Nutter, Colton Arrington and Ryan Thomas.
Wahama’s only stater that didn’t win a ring in 2015 was senior Tyler Grimm, who stepped in as catcher and cleanup batter for the 2016 White Falcons.
“We made a commitment down the stretch that we were going to put the best defensive team on the field,” Bradley said. “When Tyler Grimm could go in and catch for us, it allowed us to be strong at shortstop and get guys where we thought they should be.”
Wahama finished 2016 with a team fielding percentage of .934, with 54 errors in 33 games.
“Last year we were winning, even making errors,” Cullen said. “We knew we couldn’t keep up with that, we made some switches and the defense really showed in that last game.”
The Red and White did not commit an error in either the state semifinal or final.
“I truly believe, with what we taught them, that defensive and pitching wins championship games,” Hoffman said. “I think our defense and pitching is what got us another state title.”
Another advantage Wahama had was playing in the Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division. The nine-team league fared very well in the postseason this spring as, along with Wahama, Trimble, Eastern, Waterford and Belpre each made the district final, with the Eagles and Wildcats advancing to the regional round. Cullen noted that playing in a league with that many quality teams ultimately helped the White Falcons.
“It especially helped this year because the pitching we saw over there,” said Cullen. “Those were some darn good pitchers we faced.”
Wahama earned its third straight TVC Hocking title this spring and their fourth in the six seasons since joining the league. The White Falcons are 66-20 all-time in the nine-team league.
Ever-focused on the tournament, Wahama lost its final five regular season games of the season, including two tune-up games that weren’t on the original schedule.
“Those were just tune-ups, we didn’t really care about them, we just wanted to get Philip and Mason some innings,” Cullen said. “It’s just like a practice game to me, they might feel different, but it’s just a chance to get some swings against some good pitchers. Point Pleasant had some good pitching and you’re not going to get much better pitching than what Nitro had. We saw better pitching in both of those games than what we saw at the state tournament.”
Cullen noted a previous experience as why he feels tune-up games are just there for practice.
“I have to admit, one year against Roane County, William Zuspan convinced me to leave him in,” Cullen said. “He finished it and we got the win, but he didn’t have anything against Charleston Catholic when we played them the next week. I’ll never let that happen again.”
After a loss to start Wahama’s 2016, the White Falcons won 10 straight games. A 19-11 loss to Moorefield ended the Bend Area team’s winning streak, but the Red and White won the next three decisions. Wahama’s season hit a low point following a 7-1 victory over Southern, as the White Falcons lost their next four games.
WHS got back on track with a double-header sweep of Belpre, but lost back-to-back home games headed into the Region 4, Section 3 tournament. Wahama won all three sectional games, but lost a rescheduled regular season game at Trimble and a tune-up game at Point Pleasant.
The White Falcons shutout both regional opponents, and then fell to Nitro — the eventual Class AAA runner-up — in a tune-up for both teams. Despite all the ups and downs of the season, the confidence of the Red and White never wavered.
“I don’t think they ever thought they couldn’t repeat, especially the seniors,” Cullen said. “The seniors wanted the legacy of being the first team to ever repeat and they wanted it bad. Philip is the most positive thinking kid that I’ve been around, he believed we were going to win it all along.”
Part of the reason that the White Falcons were so confident is that they always had each other’s back.
“They’re an awful lot like a family,” Cullen said. “Family has some arguments sometimes, but family always works it out. Family is your blood and you play for each other. That’s how it’s been all year long, we’re like a second family.”
For everything to work, the White Falcon coaching staff had to have the whole team on the same page.
“The kids have bought in to the fact that they need to be unselfish,” Bradley said. “If you go to the plate in a bunt situation, we need you to lay down a bunt. Bunting won the Man game. We work on bunt defense, but a lot of these teams don’t. Regardless of what sport it is, you can’t expect a kid to go out on the court or field, and do something that you havn’t practiced.”
The White Falcons were set to start the state final, when the tarp was pulled over the field and a three-hour and 15-minute rain delay began. After scoring the game’s first run, WHS surrendered four straight runs to Wheeling Central. Just before the second rain delay — a break of close to two hours — Wahama scored two runs and cut the deficit to 4-3.
“I told them I was the ghost of baseball past,” Hoffman said. “I told them that you have to look at what the losing side will look like, you have to anguish for three-or-four hours about what it might be like to be a loser. I said ‘now, you have a chance to change it, you’re down 4-3, you can hold them, it’s on you’. They’re champions and now with what they were able to accomplish, they’ll be able to buy into our system more next year.”
Going into the long break with a one-run deficit may have been an advantage for the White Falcons, who quickly gained the lead out of the break.
“Maybe sitting there and them thinking about how we were behind might have helped,” Cullen said. “We played better after we came out. Sitting there down 4-1 would have been a lot tougher, and it was a big hit that got those two runs in. They showed a lot of character and a lot of kids grew up right there. I think Wheeling Central was sure that we were going to change pitchers after the second rain delay, but I told Mason ‘you’re it, we’ve got nothing else’.”
Hicks excelled on the mound after the break, striking out three batters, while not even allowing a base runner of the final 2.2 frames.
“There was a difference in Mason’s demeanor when we came out of the second rain delay,” Bradley said. “It was different than it had been all day. I came out of the dugout just before the seventh inning and I told him to finish it. I felt at ease at that point, as much as I could.”
For coach Hoffman, sharing the state title with his son, junior ace Philip Hoffman, makes it that much more rewarding.
“I’ve not only been a part of two state championship teams, but I have a son that I’ve been able to experience that with too,” Hoffman said. “I just can’t explain how special that makes it.”
Along with Philip Hoffman, starters Colton Arrington, Nyles Riggs, Jared Oliver and Dalton Kearns will be back in the Red and White next season. The White Falcons will have to replace graduating seniors Mason Hicks, Jared Nutter, Ian Hook, Tyler Grimm, Ricky Kearns and Ryan Thomas.
“We’re not going to change our methods, we’re just going to have different personnel,” Bradley said. “We’ve got some holes to fill offensively and defensively. Hopefully some of these younger classmen can step up and feel these holes for us.”
For the White Falcons to return to Appalachian Power Park for a third-straight state title run, the Red and White will have a much different path. Wahama’s section — which has been a three-team double elimination tournament featuring Hannan and Calhoun County — will be a six-team sectional featuring Ravenswood, Williamstown, Parkersburg Catholic, Wirt County and Calhoun County. The other side of the region will feature Hannan, Tug Valley, Huntington St. Joe, Buffalo, Sherman, Tolsia and Van.
Alex Hawley can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2100.