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Red Dragons face rough road to MSAC tournament

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If St. Albans makes the Mountain State Athletic Conference championship tournament, it should certainly be battle-tested.

The Red Dragons (14-5) face a difficult stretch of games this week as they attempt to qualify for the four-team MSAC event that begins April 29.

The first five teams on SA's docket are all included in the Gazette's state rankings - today: at Hurricane (No. 1 in Class AAA); Tuesday: at Nitro (No. 9 in AAA); Wednesday: Logan (No. 8 in AAA); Thursday: at Parkersburg South (No. 6 in AAA); Friday: at Independence (No. 7 in AA). There's also a Saturday game at Greenbrier East.

"Our schedule next week is Murderer's Row,'' said St. Albans coach Rick Whitman. "If anybody plays a tougher schedule than we've got next week, I mean, I'd like to see it.''

The last time the MSAC standings were compiled, the Red Dragons were 4-2 in league games and rated third. They've since bumped their MSAC record to 7-3.

Only the top four teams in the conference by Saturday's cutoff date advance to the championship event, which will be hosted by the No. 1 team. Hurricane was No. 1 in the most recent set of MSAC standings.

Dots' dash of confidence

Poca had already beaten the state's No. 2 Class AA team - Bridgeport - earlier in the season, but make no mistake about Friday's 12-4 win against No. 1 Herbert Hoover.

It will give the Dots (13-6) a big boost of confidence.

Hoover (17-1), the Cardinal Conference leader, blanked Poca 10-0 earlier in the season, one of 11 mercy-rule victories for the Huskies this season. But the biggest thing Dots coach Gene Estel noticed was that his team played seven strong innings.

"We were up 6-0 on Winfield the other day,'' Estel said, "and sort of kicked it into cruise control and they came back and beat us 9-8. I told them they've got to keep the intensity up for seven innings. The next game, they did for about five innings against South Charleston.

"[Friday] they did play with that same intensity all the way through. That's good because were in a stretch right now where we play 12 games in 14 days - our only days off are Sunday. We're in a tough stretch and a lot of them are conference games, so we've got to come out with that same intensity. We tell them to get the 'W' and then look for the next one.''

Sophomore Noah Frampton, who pitched all seven innings against the Huskies, feels like Friday's win could keep paying off down the road.

"Beating the No. 1 team in the state,'' Frampton said, "just gives us confidence to know we can beat anybody any given day. I just thank the Lord for the abilities He's blessed us with.''

Irish hit speed bump

Things were sailing along smoothly for Charleston Catholic at the beginning of the season. The Irish vaulted to a 6-1 record and took over the top spot in the Class A ratings.

However, the last couple weeks have brought a slump of sorts.

Catholic dropped three of four games during its Myrtle Beach trip, has lost half of its last 12 games, and carries a three-game losing streak into this week.

The other side of the coin is that the Irish aren't exactly losing to chopped liver. Their last four setbacks have come to ranked teams - AAA Logan, AA No.1 Hoover and single-A Madonna and Valley Fayette.

That fact hasn't been lost on Catholic coach Bill Mehle.

"That's what we keep talking about - and what we talked about at batting practice [Saturday],'' Mehle said. "If you look at our schedule, I'd match our schedule with any single-A team. Going to the beach, the Catholic schools tournament, then rolling through Hoover and Logan.

"It's a very, very competitive schedule, and the reason why we do that is to focus on what we need to do to win in the postseason. We told them there's two weeks left [in the regular season] to practice and now it's all about executing - learning how to execute in pressure situations. We've got to keep learning and keep our heads up and hope we plan on being hot at the right time two weeks from now.''

No Hoover hangover

Hoover coach Brian Young doesn't think his team will suffer a hangover following its first loss of the season.

"I don't think so,'' Young said following the setback at Poca. "We put the ball in play. We hit the ball right at them, and they made several nice plays. They got after it and made plays when they needed to. We helped them out by making errors on their side.''

The Huskies committed five errors that led to nine unearned runs for the Dots. On offense, Hoover outhit Poca 13-8, but was held to its lowest run total of the season. Twelve times in its first 16 games, Hoover scored 10-plus runs.

Young didn't want to pin all the blame on his team's fielding, even though the hitting and pitching were above average.

"It didn't let us down, I don't think,'' he said. "We didn't put timely hits together. We had 13 hits, but we never seemed to get hits with runners in scoring position the last two innings. We've got to put the ball in play and get one to fall for us.''

Hoover bounced back nicely Saturday with a 20-7 win at AAA Point Pleasant, bunching 15 runs into its final two at-bats to break a 5-all tie and snap the Big Blacks' 10-game win streak.

Tide rolls with Hunter

Hoover, which had six players hitting better than .450 to start last week, isn't the only team putting up some big offensive numbers this season.

Sherman junior John Hunter ended the week hitting a solid .567 through 18 games with 24 runs, 22 RBIs and 24 stolen bases. Included in his barrage are 18 extra-base hits - eight doubles, eight triples and two homers.

Hunter also contributes on the mound with 37 strikeouts in 33 innings and fields at a .980 clip as a pitcher-first baseman.

"He's a great kid and a role model for the younger players,'' said Tide coach Jeremiah Pettry. "He works hard on the field as well as in the classroom. He has aspirations of playing college baseball.''

The Tide (6-12) started the season 2-9, but is playing better lately.

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.


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