Class AAA Region 1 has a new look to it, thanks to reclassification, opening the door for a new team to work its way to Appalachian Power Park in Charleston for the high school baseball state tournament.
Gone from the region is Fairmont Senior, a program that made its way to the state tournament eight times in the last nine seasons. The Polar Bears dropped to Class AA this season.
So, who makes the cut out of Region 1 this year in Class AAA? Brooke and Wheeling Park make up Section 1, Parkersburg and Parkersburg South make up Section 2, Preston and University in Section 3, with Morgantown and John Marshall in Section 4.
One of the early favorites is Wheeling Park, where the Patriots (11-0) have gotten off to one of the best starts in school history.
“We’re just trying to get better – we have a lot of talent. But unlike football where you have to have a good record to get into the playoffs, you just have to be able to peak come sectional time and that’s when it counts,” said Wheeling Park head coach Mike McLeod. “You have to have fresh arms with everyone healthy and hopefully you can make a run at it.”
So far, the Patriots have been able to put a run together, picking up wins over regional foes University (11-8 and 8-2), Morgantown (9-0), Brooke (16-6), Parkersburg (12-2 and 10-9) and John Marshall (3-2). Wheeling Park has a doubleheader scheduled against Parkersburg South later this month.
“Sometimes pitching alignments didn’t matchup when you played them,” McLeod said. “But, we have four guys on the mound that I would go to battle with against anyone in the state.
“We just preach each and every day that we’re going to take it one game at a time. We have a good mix of senior leadership with some good, young talent. We have a little bit of speed and have been just trying to put the ball in play to put pressure on the defenses to make plays.”
Leading the Patriots in hitting this season has been center fielder Eric Banks – a junior playing baseball for the first time in two years.
Then there’s senior pitcher and shortstop Andrew Kowalo.
“He’s our Superman,” McLeod said. “He’s a senior who has started four years at shortstop. He’s being recruited and has offers from Wheeling Jesuit, Potomac State and Miami Dade. So, there are some schools interested and looking at him.”
McLeod, meanwhile, is in his second season at the helm with the Patriots. The former all-state standout in three sports for Wheeling Park is focused on getting his alma mater back to the top.
“I’m a people person and I love being around my players,” McLeod said. “I try to build that team aspect. We’re made up of a bunch of individuals, but when we come together for the two hours of practice or game time, we all have that common goal. The thing that’s neat and when you can tell you have something special is that all of our kids hang out together. We eat together at times and those are some of the things that I try to plan as a coach.”
Those are keys he learned during his time in the minor leagues with the Oakland A’s.
“I’m a big believer that it’s the horse that takes the jockey to the finish line,” he said. “So, when you have horses, I think it’s easy to coach when you have guys that can make plays and get the bunts down. It makes it easy to coach and it makes you look like a genius, but you’re really not. They’re just great kids to be around.”