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Versatile Cougars face field full of talent and successful coaches

By Bob Madison - For the Chronicle | Jun 25, 2021

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Versatility can be as important as game experience. Or raw baseball talent. Or masterful pitchers. Or the players’ knowledge of inside baseball, their defensive skills, foot speed or courage to find the ways to winning even against top-flight competition.

Jefferson has a lengthy list of versatile players . . . multi-position players who might start games at one position and end those games somewhere else.

The state-bound Cougars had seven pitchers who appeared in at least eight games on the mound. All of them were employed as both starters and relievers.

Riley Vadesz, who had a 7-1 record, is also a second baseman, Zac Rose, who moved his record to 6-1 when he bested Martinsburg in the Regional finale, saw constant action at first base and in the outfield. Sammy Roberts had a 5-1 pitching record and is in the outfield when not pitching. Griffin Horowicz finished with an earned run average of less than one run per game in his nine appearances and usually bats seventh as a position player in Jefferson’s everyday lineup. Kamien Gonzalez had a 1.95 ERA in his nine pitching appearances and batted about .340 from his usual shortstop position. Sophomore Daquon Shipe scored 16 runs, had a .405 on-base percentage and drew 10 walks when not using his pitching skills to post a 5-0 record. Peyton Corwine is now in the everyday lineup and has also done some pitching and Will Ricketts went 3-0 in eight pitching appearances when not pinch hitting.

Outfielder Sam Wabnitz went 5-for-14 in the Sectional tournament and could also pitch if called upon to do so. Regan Will Allinger has settled in as the designated hitter, but earlier was also a position player.

Versatility was a defining factor in Jefferson’s success. Now it could be a necessity as the 27-3 Cougars chase after another state championship against a star-studded field of rivals who are just as versatile and just as used to playing in and winning big games.

Jefferson’s first opponent in the Class AAA semifinals is Bridgeport, a team that has 17 straight wins coming to Charleston. The Indians were in the Class AA ranks until this season when their school population pushed them into the Class AAA ranks. Bridgeport literally dominated the schools in the Class AA division, winning the last six state championships. Its coach, Robert Shields, has been guiding the Bridgeport fortunes for many years.

The Cougars topped the Indians, 6-1, in a regular season game and the two teams have been annual foes for a long time. The loss to Jefferson was Bridgeport’s last of the 2021 season and it now has a 17-game win streak with it when it lands in Charleston with a 32-3 overall record.

The other classic semifinal game pits long-time rivals Hurricane from Putnam County and St. Albans, the school that actually won the last state tournament that was held in 2020.

Hurricane had a team in 2020 that had 10 seniors, but they couldn’t play because there was no season. The Redskins are coached by Brian Sutphin and come in with a 31-1 record and 30 straight wins. Hurricane’s lone loss was to Parkersburg South and it defeated Cabell Midland in the Regional finale. St. Albans claimed a 25-7 record this season, but despite its obviously glossy mark has actually lost the same number of games as the other three teams combined — seven. The Red Dragons are coached by Rick Whitman, who is a member of the state baseball committee, the same as Shields, Sutphin and Jefferson’s John Lowery, Sr.

St. Albans and Hurricane have played each other in three of the last four state tournaments. The two teams played once during the 2021 season with Hurricane winning.

Jefferson had a long winning streak to begin this season. It finally lost a game to James Wood of Winchester. The other two losses were to Morgantown and Washington. The Cougars have won at least 20 games per season for 43 consecutive years. John Lowery Sr. is the school’s only head coach since it began playing in the 1973 season. He has 12 state championships in all.

Today’s semifinals have Hurricane playing St. Albans at 4:30 p.m., and then Jefferson seeing Bridgeport about 50 minutes later. The Class AAA finals are scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m.

The state tournament’s Class AA semifinals have Logan playing Herbert Hoover and Independence playing North Marion. And in Class A it will be two-time defending champion Moorefield playing Williamstown in one semifinal and Charleston Catholic playing the Man Hillbillies in the other game.

Pitching often determines the survivor in such a brief series of games and every team should have well-rested staffs since all the Regionals were completed by June 17. All the games are at Appalachian Power Park with its gaping power alleys and long distances to the fence down the foul lines. It’s 330-feet to left, 400-feet to center and 320-feet to right. With four of the premium Class AAA coaches in the state facing each other, the games should be close, with so-called “small ball” being used to carve out runs and every pitcher available to be used.

Seeing an elite field of teams like this might not happen again for some time. And with Hurricane having only one senior on its roster, it could be wise to get the Redskins this year.