The Kanawha Valley has been dominant in baseball the last three years with four state champions in three classes.
Kanawha County’s South Charleston won the 2006 Class AAA crown in under first-year head coach Ken Samms and current Marshall pitcher Arik Sikula.
Sikula was a Louisville All-American that year.
That same year, Class A and Putnam County school Buffalo won the state crown with help from another Louisville All-American – catcher Bryan Bigham.
In 2007, it was Class AA and Kanawha County school Herbert Hoover winning a state crown in coach Kevin Buckner’s final year at the helm. Guiding the Huskies that year was pitcher James White.
Last year, Nitro rolled to a pair of 10-0 mercy-rule games in the state tournament behind the power of Andrew Pickering – who hit three home runs – and the pitching and hitting of his brother, WVU recruit Chase Pickering.
Can the Kanawha Valley, which had gone four years without a state champion before the streak, continue winning titles?
Defending champion Nitro has won nine of its first 11 games, but coach Steve Pritchard says his team appears to be resting on its laurels of last year.
The Wildcats were considered the odds-on favorites for another title, but there are chinks in the armor. Nitro had four errors in its first loss of the season, 4-2 to Cabell Midland.
Much of the blame can be cast on the unpredictable spring weather in the Mountain State.
“We’re just like everybody else, we either play a game or practice inside,” Pritchard said.
The Wildcats’ chase for a second consecutive title can also be derailed by some up-and-coming programs like Capital. The Cougars won 12 of their first 15 games, which includes a 6-0 victory over Nitro.
Coach Robert Massey, a former assistant coach at Nitro, has watched his team win six of its last seven games.
The Cougars’ most-recent loss was to another upstart program – Riverside. Coach Mike Carte, in his first year at Riverside, spent the last three years as an assistant to former coach Al Estepp. Carte was the coach at South Charleston prior to moving to teach advanced biology at Riverside.
The Warriors are 8-6 after finishing 10-17 last season. Estepp, won 401 in 21 seasons as head coach at DuPont and Riverside – the consolidation of DuPont and East Bank high schools.
Carte spent eight seasons at South Charleston, winning 183 games.
MIDWAY through the current campaign, last year’s state tournament qualifiers don’t appear to be shoo-ins to make it back to Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park in May.
Martinsburg, which reached the state tournament but lost to Nitro in the semifinals, is 6-5. Its star pitcher and University of Tennessee recruit Brandon King, has lost back-to-back games.
On the other hand, Jefferson, the state’s most dominant program which didn’t reach the state tournament last year, is 14-0 after winning a pair of games at the Mingo Bay Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The Kanawha Valley’s George Washington was a state tournament qualifier last year, but is young and appears to be rebuilding this season.
The fourth 2008 Class AAA state tournament team, Fairmont Senior, graduated five players who hit over .300 last year.
Coach Steve Naternicola told the Fairmont Times-West Virginian that his team is a work in progress.
“We’re going to find the right guys for us,” Naternicola told the Times-West Virginian. “I don’t care if they are freshmen, sophomores or seniors. I’m going to put whoever can help us win in the ballgame.”
Ace pitcher Mike Ice is going strong, pitching seven strong innings and giving up two unearned runs. He didn’t give up a hit until a seventh-inning single, but had 15 strikeouts and three walks.
Naternicola said Ice’s only issue is trying to strike everybody out, instead of preserving his pitch count.
“I tell him to let them hit,” Naternicola said. “An out is an out.”
THE CLASS AA field took a bit of a hit when traditional powers Winfield and Logan moved up to Class AAA.
Logan won the Class AA title last year.
IN CLASS A, Buffalo – which fell to Wheeling Central in the championship last season – is hurting without All-State pitcher and center fielder Jason Lewis. Lewis is battling an infection in his left arm, which forced him off the mound and to first base where he won’t have to throw as much.
He isn’t expecting to pitch until the first or second week of May.
The Maroon Knights are 7-4 after splitting a doubleheader with Class AAA Brooke. Still, Wheeling Central and the Bruins had seven errors in the first game – an 8-6 Wheeling Central victory.
“I can live with physical errors, but there’s no excuse for the mental mistakes,” Wheeling Central Coach Jim Wodusky told the Wheeling Intelligencer. Our young kids are still learning.”
Wheeling Central has won the last two Class A state titles and three of the last four. Buffalo’s 2006 title broke up the Maroon Knights’ string of championships.
Rich Stevens, a sportswriter for the Charleston Daily Mail, covers West Virginia for MaxPreps.