By Michael Minnich
Tribune Sports Editor
SHORT GAP—The odor of sunscreen wafted through the Frankfort dugout on Monday.
It smelled like the beach.
But the Falcons aren’t quite ready for their vacation yet.
Today, they’ll try and punch their ticket to the regional final when they host the Berkeley Springs Indians at 4:30 p.m.
Frankfort (19-10), a game from elimination this time last week after Keyser’s Andrew Liller threw a gem, rebounded to crush the Golden Tornado twice, 13-2 and 16-0, to win the sectional series, which took two weeks to play because of rain, and advance to this point.
“After the week off with all of the rain, we came out a little bit rusty. We felt good taking that week, we got some health issues out of the way. But we needed to play a little bit,” said Frankfort coach Matt Miller. “The last two games, we played really well. I feel like we have a good mojo coming out of out.”
FHS took a 5-2 thriller in extra innings at Petersburg in the regional semis last year, and the young man that finished that game will start this one today: senior Ross Conley.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Ross. There’s been some games this year where he’s pitched excellent and had some bad luck. His win-loss record…he still has a winning record, but it could be a lot better with the way he’s pitched,” said Miller. “Every time he goes out, we know what we’re getting from him. He’s gonna throw strikes. He’s gonna compete. His competitive juices, when they get flowing, he’s the guy we want out there. For the last three years, he’s been that guy for us. Last year in the regional against Petersburg, he came up huge for us and now it’s his turn to have the ball first.”
“There’s nobody else I’d want more on the mound than him.”
Conley’s been through this before and says that a playoff day isn’t that much different.
“It’s just another day. There’s some nerves once you get to the field and start warming up, but once you throw that first pitch, you’re fine,” said Conley.
Unlike the sectional, there are no second chances at the regional level.
“We have guys that were in it last year. Ross, Brett, John, all of those guys have been through the win-or-go-home games at the regional. That experience helps, plus last week prepared us. We have no choice. We’ve just go to win baseball games,” said Miller.
Frankfort’s other senior is Troy Mumma, who had to watch last year’s run to the regional final due to injury, adding meaning to this year’s experience.
“A lot. Missing out last year….I’ve played baseball since I was six or seven, so not having that last year really sucked. I’m trying to make last year as good as it can be,” said Mumma.
“He does the little things. Defensively, he’s been outstanding for us. Last game, he made that unbelievable catch to end it,” said Miller. “He was kind of the question mark at the beginning of the year, whether that injury was going to affect him, and obviously it didn’t very much, if it did at all. He’s been huge in the 2-hole for us. He does the little things, like moving runners over. John Ackerman had 39 RBIs this year. That’s a huge amount of RBIs in a high school season, and it’s because of Troy and Zack [Whitacre] getting on base and getting in scoring position.”
Whitacre, a freshman, was named all-PVC this year, along with the two seniors and junior first baseman Ackerman.
“Zack’s a special kid. He works really hard. The things that people don’t see is the time he spends in the cage after practice, hitting extra and doing the small things to get better. Taking ground balls in the gym when it was pouring down the rain last week, hundreds of ground balls just to keep his head on,” said Miller. “That’s the only way you’re going to be all-PVC as a freshman. You’ve got to put in that work, and he’s been huge at the top of the lineup too. Not only has he played short, but he’s been our leadoff hitter. To put that kind of pressure on at Day 1 and have him accept that role and succeed in that role, he’s had a great year for us.”
Frankfort has also gotten major contributions from sophomores Wyatt Yates, Blake Wasson, Nick Corwell, Foster Conis, and Blake Rhodes, all regular starters.
“These kids played a lot of baseball games in their past. This is the same group that had a lot of success through Little League and through their summer leagues the last two years. And now they’re sophomores contributing to the varsity team. Wasson and Wyatt contributed to the varsity team as freshmen. Brett and John have been here since freshman year. Ross is a three-year varsity guy. Troy…he’s played two varsity years. So even though we’re young in general, there’s still experience with this youth,” said Miller.
Conley praised his defense, and especially Corwell’s work behind the plate at catcher.
“It’s very nice to be able to throw pitches to get a guy out and know that if a guy makes contact, your defense is behind you and can make a play like that,” said Conley. “He’s worked very hard this season. To be able to throw a 3-2 curveball and not have to worry about it all, even with runners on base, is nice,” said Conley.
“I feel comfortable with our depth, and I really feel comfortable with our pitching depth. But one-and-done situations, you don’t have to lean on that depth quite so much,” said Miller.
The two schools have played twice: Frankfort won their season opener on the road, 6-2, on March 17, then Berkeley Springs got payback on May 3, 8-7.
Conley threw that first game.
“Well, for one, they’re fast. I remember that. They’re quick on the bases. You have to be quick to the plate to give Nick a chance,” said Conley. “But it was the first game of the season. I don’t remember much more than that.”
Miller’s keys?
“Keep their leadoff hitter off base. He’s really good. He steals a lot of bases,” said Miller. “Their run game hurt us last game, but Ross wasn’t the pitcher last game. We’ve worked on some things on getting to the plate quicker. I feel confident in what we do. We went up after the Keyser game and watched them against Petersburg. We got some things that we feel comfortable with. But, baseball’s game where you have to execute. It doesn’t matter what the other team does as long as you do what you do.”
“They’ve very aggressive. They play very loose, which is a good thing for a baseball team to do,” said Miller. “They do have a good hitter in the middle of their lineup, Justin Stone, who drives the ball well. He had a double and a single against us the last time. But they all put the ball in play. They don’t strike out a lot.”
The Falcons know this could be the end, but they believe that it won’t be.
“It should be a good matchup. I feel 100 percent confident in my pitchers and our guys feel really good right now. We were loose the last two games, we’ve practiced well since then,” said Miller.
“Once you come out on the field and see the other team, you have it in the back of your mind that this could be the end of the season,” said Mumma.
“I’m extremely confident. The way we’ve been hitting the ball the last two games and the way we’ve been fielding, too, I don’t see any way we’ll lose if we play like we have,” said Conley.
The winner today will travel to face the winner of tonight’s 6 p.m. game in Grafton between defending regional and state champ Bridgeport and Grafton.
The Indians defeated the Falcons in last year’s regional final, overcoming an early 4-2 deficit.