By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Now that he’s had more than four months to reflect, West Virginia Miners manager Tim Epling can readily tell you the moment he will most remember about the team’s run to the 2012 Prospect League championship.
He certainly has his choices, from Sam Lewis’ two no-hitters to beating the storied Chillicothe Paints for the East Division championship. But what stands out to Epling is the day when the ride came to an end.
“I reflect on the very last day, of when it was a time for the team and the coaches to be by themselves,” Epling said. “In that little dungeon dressing room (at League Stadium in Huntingburg, Ind.). I gave them about a two-minute pep talk afterwards, knowing that might be the last time that I see some of those players.”
He was right. The bus was nearly empty on the trip home, a day after the Miners beat the DuBois County Bombers to sweep the PL championship series. As memorable as the summer might have been, most of the 26 players never came back to Beckley, instead electing to ride home with their families so they could squeeze what little free time was left before going back to school just two weeks later.
But no one will ever be able to take away the memories they all helped forge for three months in 2012. They will always be able to say they were part of West Virginia’s first league championship.
The Miners won both halves of the season in the East, then beat Chillicothe 6-2 in a one-game sudden death playoff for the outright division title. That was followed by Lewis’ team-record 18-strikeout gem in a 4-2 win over the Bombers in Game 1.
Both of those games were at home. To win the title, the Miners had to go on the road and beat the Bombers at historic League Stadium, where the movie “A League of Their Own” was filmed.
Joe Williams provided the big scene in this one — his diving catch with runners on the corners and two out preserved West Virginia’s 6-3 lead in the eighth en route to the championship.
The Miners finished the regular season with a league-best 40-19 record and went 3-0 in the postseason. The team was ranked No. 7 in Perfect Game USA’s final top 30 list of summer collegiate teams.
“Your first (championship) is always special,” Epling said, “knowing how hard those kids worked and how much fun we had with each other, as a coaching staff and as players in general.”
There were plenty of individual achievements along the way, including:
n Clay Prestridge. Despite arriving late and missing some time with an illness, Prestridge was still the league’s batting champ with a .393 average. He was also named an All-American by Perfect Game.
n Sam Lewis. In the very first game of the season, Lewis pitched the first no-hitter in team history against Slippery Rock. Less than two months later, he did it again at Lorain County. He led the league in wins (8), and later signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals. Like Prestridge, Lewis was named an All-American.
n Bradley Strong. The third baseman was elected to start the league All-Star game and tied for the league lead with 29 stolen bases.
Moving forward, the Miners will look almost completely brand new in 2013. As is stands now, Kolin Stanley is the only player to confirm that he will be back. Stanley, a right-handed pitcher from Marshall, tossed a perfect ninth inning for the save in the championship clincher.
Epling and staff will be faced not only with establishing an on-field approach that fits the team’s overall ability, but also making sure team chemistry remains strong.
“We’re still recruiting. We’ve got about 23, 24 kids signed so far,” Epling said. “It’s a new year, and with a completely different-looking ballclub. We lost 23 or 24 players. It’s almost like we’re starting over. It’s scary.”
— E-mail: gfauber