PDT Sports Writer
Of the 64 high school baseball teams that remain in the state of Ohio, 6.25 percent hail not only from one conference, but from the same division.
While the number may seem deceiving, the Southern Ohio Conference has half of its eight-school Division II membership vying to move on to a spot or spots in next week’s state championships. In comparison, the Ohio Capital Conference is the only other conference with four of its member schools still playing.
The only difference is that Marysville and Thomas Worthington, half of the all-OCC Division I Regional, were in the same division. In all, 12 other conferences or leagues after the SOC and the OCC have multiple schools looking to hoist the ultimate crown in one of the four state divisions.
The SOC II will be represented by its 14-0 conference champion Wheelersburg, West, Oak Hill and Waverly in Thursday’s semifinal contests. The Pirates and Senators will face each other for a third time this season in the first of two Division III Regional Semifinals at VA Memorial Stadium with the Oaks following in the other semifinal against West Lafayette Ridgewood. The Tigers travel to Zanesville’s Gant Memorial Stadium to take on Millersburg West Holmes in a Division II Regional Semifinal.
After guiding West to its first trip to the regionals since 1995 with a 7-1 win over Rock Hill, coach Chris Rapp last week backed up the strength of the conference. He gave most of the credit to 32-year Valley coach Dean Schuler as his Indians were a step shy of advancing to the Division IV Regionals and being the fifth school in the division to play in the Sweet 16.
“We all came in and he had been there for years in the program,” Rapp said. “You have to compete day in and day out in the SOC.
“There’s no easy games and it’s just a very good, well-balanced league. When you’ve got five teams that are in the district finals, that says something.”
For Wheelersburg coach Michael Estep and his defending Division III state champion Pirates, it’s the second time in three seasons they will face a conference foe in the regional semis. In 2011, Wheelersburg defeated Valley 11-4 en route to the school’s third trip to the state in four seasons.
“It’s a backyard rivalry game,” Estep said about facing the Senators after his team’s 4-1 win last Saturday over Adena in the district finals. “When you’re talking about three teams from the SOC II having a chance to move through the regionals and ultimately get to Columbus, it’s a special deal. It says a lot about our conference.”
Estep felt baseball isn’t the only sport that should be receiving all of the attention in this portion of the state.
“There’s some good athletics down here and so I think that hopefully by putting in three teams and even four teams in a regional setting, it’ll open people’s eyes a little bit more that there’s some good athletics in Southern Ohio,” Estep said.
Rapp knows his team will have to be ready every inning in order to compete and possibly dethrone the champs.
“That Wheelersburg-West rivalry, it’s a great rivalry,” Rapp said. “What more do you need to say?
“I think at this point, let’s throw out the scores because both teams are playing good ball to get here. Obviously Wheelersburg is.”
Nearly six full decades have passed since Oak Hill has been in this type of position after a 4-3 win in 10 innings last Wednesday over Zane Trace. The Oaks, who had not won a district title since 1956 prior to beating the Pioneers, will need to get through a Generals ball club in order to secure an all-SOC II final Friday.
Oak Hill coach Jason Wright is excited to have his program in this spot and feels the contest with the SOC II has prepared them to be in this spot.
“You hear a lot about the SVC and it’s a great conference too but I think that we’ve proven this year that the SOC is definitely the cream of the crop around this area when it comes to, top to bottom, being the top conference,” Wright said. “With Valley there, five out of the eight teams playing for district championships and four of them getting them. It says a lot.”
It has already been an historic season for Waverly coach Jeff Noble as his team last Wednesday claimed a 2-0 win over Gallia Academy. After earning his 300th-career victory during the regular season, he is looking to add a trip to Huntington Park to this portion of his resume.
In an emailed response to The Daily Times Tuesday, Noble also felt the conference was really competitive and forced teams to be sharp in every game.
“Am I surprised that we have four teams in the regional?” Noble said. “Well obviously this is a very special year but our league has always represented very well in the tournament.”
The Division III Regional Semifinals will take place at 2 and 5 p.m. Thursday while the Tigers will play the 5:00 game. If Waverly advances, the winner of the Warren-Cadiz Harrison Central game will await.
Both regional finals will be played at 5 p.m. Friday. The representative from the Division III Regional will play in the 10 a.m. game June 6. If the Tigers make it to Columbus, the Division II State Semifinal will have a 4 p.m. first pitch the same day.
All four state championship games will take place June 8 at Huntington Park, the home of the Columbus Clippers.
Pike County News Watchman Sports Editor Julie Billings and Jackson County Times-Journal Sports Editor Paul Boggs contributed to the report.
Cody Leist can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 294, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking sports news, follow Cody on Twitter @CodyLeist.