Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
AKRON — If there’s just one thing that’s for sure this weekend in Akron, it’s the fact that Wheelersburg pitcher Andi Jo Howard will not back down from a challenge.
Put simply, she just doesn’t have it in her. She’s not built that way.
The Pirates’ freshman phenom has grown up before our eyes this spring, leading her team to an outright conference title alongside sectional, district and regional crowns.
To put it simply, she’s been magnificent.
Behind its star pitcher, Wheelersburg has racked up 25 wins while making even the strongest opponents look pedestrian. But Howard says that’s a product of playing for something “bigger than themselves.”
“This tournament run really has meant so much to us. This year, we’re playing for something so much bigger than ourselves,” Howard said. “With the loss of Laiken Salyers, it really makes us want to be better and give our all for her. Looking back and remembering her, everyone in the Wheelersburg community knows she gave it her all. Especially with having Syd and Dusty on the team, it makes us want to work harder for them. The Salyers family deserves so much and we want to pay it all back to them. So all in all, this tournament run has been incredible.”
Salyers played a part in the Pirates’ run to a state championship in 2016. She passed away this past December in an automobile accident. Her father, Dusty, remains on Wheelersburg’s coaching staff.
There’s no doubt she’d be proud of her alma mater.
While in the circle and at the plate this spring, Howard has learned tons of lessons. Those have come from Salyers, her coaches and her teammates — including senior Laney Eller, who had her season end early thanks to a torn ACL.
“I’ve learned so much from my older teammates this season. I think what’s stood out to me the most is that you have to stick together,” Howard said. “Softball isn’t a one-person sport. Be the person to pick someone up. Not only in softball, but in life. With [shortstop] Laney [Eller] being a senior and not being able to finish off her season, it’s shown the adversity this team has faced. The senior class has really stepped up and said to this team that no set backs are too big.”
And no challenge is too tall.
When Howard takes her position on Friday in a Division III state semifinal, as soon as she faces Fairview’s first batter, she’ll have already been in a similar situation.
She was the centerpiece to a Little League World Series title in 2018.
“Playing in the Little League World Series really does take away a lot of the nerves,” Howard said. “It makes a lot of us that were on that team realize that no stage is too large for us. It’s just another game. We know we’ve put in the work. Our mindset has always been to not let any stage get too large. Play together and get the job done. If one person messes up, there’s no problem with that because we always have that next person there to back us up.”
That LLWS title will always stay in the back of Howard’s mind. And, if Wheelersburg is to win this year’s state title, Howard will be recreating many of the same memories at a higher level.
“My favorite memory from the World Series would definitely be winning it. Being there in the spot we had dreamed of our whole lives was one of the most amazing things I’d ever done,” Howard said. “But what really stands out the most was coming home to our people and knowing we had played our hearts out for them. We came back and got to see all of them at our home field. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
Since the title win, a 3-0 victory over Tunkhannock, Pa. — Ohio’s first-ever LLWS title — Howard has matured, both as a player and as a pitcher.
She understands the game more, she lets it come to her and she uses it to her advantage.
“I feel like I’ve improved the most on my [mental] game,” Howard said. “I came in being the little freshman who had won the World Series and I feel as if I’m leaving [this season] knowing so much more about the game and what I can really do with it.”
In the past 21 innings, Howard has surrendered just five earned runs and has struck out 20 hitters. Her offense, which she’s also an important part of, has given her plenty of support.
Wheelersburg has outscored its last three opponents by a 32-9 margin and has posted a postseason run differential of 61-11.
Still, Howard knows that her and her teammates have their work cut out for them. It’s the state softball tournament, where nothing comes easy. But you can rest assured that, behind one of the most talented freshmen that Southern Ohio has seen, Wheelersburg will fight to the finish.
You can book that.
“Everyone we are facing has the same goal in the end, and the only thing that sets us apart is our drive and motivation to get there,” Howard said. “This weekend, I know my team will put forth the absolute best that we have to offer and we’ll make Wheelersburg proud. We will fight until the very last out, no matter the outcome.”