WESTON, W.Va. — Three teams among the four to qualify for this season’s Class AA state tournament have done so for the first time in at least 21 seasons.
Though it’s been more than two decades since the top two seeds — No. 1 Winfield and No. 2 Keyser — were last on this stage, the wait has been even longer for Lewis County.
The Minutemen, seeded fourth and set to face the Generals in a semifinal at 5 p.m. Friday, are making their first state tournament showing since 1986.
“Taking it day by day and game by game was the goal from the beginning,” Minutemen head coach Tyler Wood said. “They trusted in themselves and trusted in us. There was a down point, but they trusted in everybody and trusted the process.”
The Minutemen (15-10) suffered through six consecutive losses over a two-week span that stretched into the second week of April. Four of those defeats came on a trip to Myrtle Beach, along with two others against Big 10 Conference foes Grafton and East Fairmont.
At 3-7 overall entering an April 11 matchup with North Marion, the Minutemen have been one of the state’s top teams since. Starting with that 13-7 win over the Huskies, LCHS was victorious in four straight before a 4-1 loss at sectional foe Herbert Hoover. The Minutemen followed it with six straight wins, including three that allowed to claim the Class AA Region II, Section 2 championship. During that stretch, Lewis beat Hoover twice by a combined margin of 25-3.
Lewis’ only two losses over the last five weeks were inconsequential in that both came in tune-ups against University. The two teams battled before regional play to avoid a lengthier layoff, and they did so again Tuesday ahead of appearances in the state tournament.
Over five postseason contests, LCHS has outscored its three opponents, 51-6. The Minutemen have scored at least 11 runs in four of those games, continuing a trend of strong offensive production in which Wood’s team has scored double-figure runs in eight of the last 14 contests.
“We focus on barrels at practice and hitting in the top right and top left part of the cage so they can bring that out to games,” Wood said.
That approach seems to have paid off. Five different LCHS regulars will head to Charleston with averages between .354 and .397. Included in that group are juniors Trenton Hunt and Brayden Carder as well as senior Grant Mealey.
Carder serves as the leadoff hitter. Hunt, who boasts the best batting average on the squad, is slotted in the cleanup spot.
Yet for the importance of both players to a lineup that features Mealey in the third spot, what Carder and Hunt have done to stabilize the team’s pitching staff is of equal if not greater importance.
In a pair regional victories over Robert C. Byrd that allowed the Minutemen to secure their spot in the state tournament, Carder and Hunt each logged complete games.
Carder helped set the tone for the series by throwing all six innings of an 11-1 victory over the Eagles in Game 1. The next night, Hunt went the distance in a seven-inning affair, limiting RCB to five hits in a 4-1 victory that prevented the series from going the distance.
“It’s such a relief when we have people like Brayden or Trenton on the mound,” LCHS third baseman Grant Mealey said. “We have to get the bats going and play good defense behind them. We know they’re going to throw a complete game or close to it and at worst keep us close in it. We have to get the bats going and thankfully we put some runs up.”
The rate at which the Minutemen have managed to score makes it especially challenging for opponents facing Hunt and Carder. While production has been plentiful throughout the order, the improved play of Mealey, a Davis & Elkins signee, has been especially pivotal.
Mealey had four hits and drove in eight runs over the two games against RCB. One night after his six-RBI effort in Game 1, Mealey broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single in the fifth inning of the second regional matchup.
“He struggled a little bit early on and we thought it was going to come. He was fantastic the last two years, so we knew the hitting was going to come,” Wood said. “We saw it in practice. It just wasn’t translating to the field. To see him go on a tear to end his senior year is awesome.”
More than a full week has passed since the Minutemen officially made their first state tournament in 37 seasons. While Lewis County has enjoyed the recognition that comes with playing in a state tournament, Mealey says the focus is on the the tough task that awaits against Winfield.
“Our goal is to finish the job,” Mealey said, “and the job is nowhere near finished.”
While Winfield is far closer in proximity to GoMart Ballpark, the Minutemen expect to to play in front of plenty of their fans as well.
That’s been the case throughout the postseason, including in contests at Hoover and RCB, with the latter played off campus at nearby Frank Loria Memorial Field.
“Small towns for you. It’s awesome,” Wood said. “They’ve come out in full force in Weston and we told them keep coming and we need you guys. That was awesome.”