CHILLICOTHE — Having a strong outing from your starting pitcher is always vital when it comes to picking up a victory.
And for Wheelersburg (19-7) on Wednesday, a solid performance from starting pitcher Caden Conn was just what the doctor ordered in a Division III district semifinal win over Zane Trace.
Going the distance, Conn allowed just one run on five hits while he and his teammates did just enough offensively to down the Pioneers (16-12) by a 3-1 margin.
“These guys have been coming up to the VA since they were little kids and watching Pirate baseball,” Wheelersburg head coach Derek Moore said after the game. “Now that they got their chance, they didn’t disappoint.”
Both teams started off slow offensively, but that changed in the third inning after Zane Trace’s Josh Young and Ezra Rippeth came up with back-to-back base hits. After moving into scoring position, Young crossed the plate on a wild pitch and put the Pioneers ahead 1-0.
However, in terms of offense, that’s all she wrote for ZT.
Wheelersburg wasted no time answering as Owen Young started the bottom half of the third with a lead-off single. A sacrifice bunt from Rowdy Watkins moved him into scoring position.
That’s when Connor Estep delivered on a promise, making it 1-1.
“Owen got us started with a base hit and Rowdy bunted him over. I told Rowdy, ‘Do your job and I’ll hit him in for you,’” Estep said. “I went up there, saw a curveball and did some damage with it.”
The Pirates didn’t stop there.
Conn then drove in Estep with an RBI single for his second hit of the game, giving the Pirates a 2-1 lead.
From there on out, Conn’s pitching took center stage.
The youngster rose to the occasion, retiring Zane Trace in order, including back-to-back strikeouts to end the top half of the fourth. In the bottom half, Young got the Pirates’ offense started yet again before being driven in by Conn on his second RBI single of the game.
Wheelersburg’s lead was extended to a 3-1 tally, and the Pirates were able to hold that lead for the remainder of the game.
PHOTOS: Images from Wheelersburg’s win over Zane Trace
“It didn’t matter how ugly or how pretty it was. We just wanted to win,” Conn said. “In a big moment, I just wanted to come up and perform for the team, and there’s nothing like it.”
Conn did his job in the final three innings of play, getting outs when his team needed him to. And in moments where the Pioneers had opportunities to get back in the game, he slammed the door shut.
That was the case in the sixth inning, when ZT threatened with runners on the corners and two outs. Although it was nothing pretty, Conn did his job and forced a ground ball to retire the side.
“Caden has been awesome all year,” Moore said. “Everything he’s got, he’s earned with a lot of hard work.”
With two outs in the top of the seventh, Zane Trace had one last chance to extend its season.
Drew Lane kept the Pioneers alive after reaching on a fielder’s choice before Josh Young added another base hit to put the tying run aboard. That brought Ezra Rippeth up to the plate with a chance to keep the Pioneers’ district title hopes alive.
But once again, Conn slammed the door.
On a 2-2 count, Rippeth sent a pitch straight to Isaac Bockway, who tagged out Young at third base to seal the deal for Wheelersburg, sending the Pirates to their third district final since 2019.
“Our swings weren’t the greatest tonight, but we found a way,” Estep said. “The only thing we cared about was getting back on that bus with a W.”
Alongside hit pitching numbers, Conn also came up clutch at the dish all night long, finishing 3-for-4 with two RBIs. Meanwhile, Estep finished 1-for-3 with an RBI double, and Young went 2-for-2 with two singles.
For Zane Trace, Young finished the night with three of his team’s five hits, going 3-for-3 and coming around to score the Pioneers’ only run.
The Pirates now return to VA Memorial Stadium at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, looking to win their second district title in three seasons. However, they’ll have to do it against arguably their biggest rival — the Ironton Tigers.
“Whenever Wheelersburg and Ironton are said in the same sentence, not much has to be said after that,” Moore said on the upcoming matchup. “We know that we’re going to have to play Pirate baseball like we did tonight. We’re going to face a really good arm, and they swing the bats really well. So we’re going to have to be at our best, and it starts by doing the little things right.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: SOSA will be live-streaming Friday’s Division III district final between Wheelersburg and Ironton. You can find the live feed at SOSAOhio.com or on SOSA’s Youtube page.