Entering the 2020 high school baseball season, one of the biggest questions across the Mountain State was, could anyone finally dethrone six-time defending Class AA state champion Bridgeport?
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that question will have to wait another year, leaving several area Region 3 teams wondering what might have been.
The last Class AA state champion to come from Region 3 was Wyoming East in 2012, after finishing runner-up the year before. Independence and PikeView also finished runner-up in 2014 and 2016, respectively, ultimately falling to the Indians.
This season, however, Region 3 clearly had several teams with enough talent and firepower to trip up Bridgeport, or whoever stepped in their paths.
High school baseball can be a crazy game, but on paper Oak Hill, Independence, Wyoming East, James Monroe and defending regional champion Shady Spring were all serious contenders for the 2020 regional crown and a trip to Charleston for the state tournament.
The Red Devils fell to Shady in last year's regional battle. With a solid returning group and an influx of players from Fayetteville after consolidation, many had Dan Poland's troops as the team to beat.
"This season was looking promising. We had experience, depth and talent," Poland said. "Lane Jordan, Nate Bloomfield, Ty Nelson, Bradley Lokant, Zane Wolfe, Braxton Hall and Cade Legg were all returning starters."
Complementing that talented group was the return of big hitting catcher Logan Lawhorne, along with freshmen Dylan Tincher and Conner Jones.
Max Holland, Logan Frantz, Hunter Rinehart and Eli Selvey were all Fayetteville standouts, making Oak Hill possibly had the deepest team in the region.
Lokant, Jordan, Wolfe and Nelson all combined to go 15-6 on the mound last year.
"Personally I think Oak Hill would have been the favorite on paper, and Shady Spring was the defending champion," Independence head coach Scott Cuthbert said. "But I think there were several teams that had a chance to win the region."
Cuthbert's Patriots would have definitely been one of those top contenders.
"I thought we were going to have a pretty good team," Cuthbert said. "I had most of my kids coming back. I lost one senior and we thought we might sneak up on some people."
Seniors Hayden Miller, David Wilson and River Spencer led a talented group of returnees that included two dynamic sophomores in Michael McKinney and Atticus Goodson.
"River would have been a four-year starter and David would have been a four-year starter after playing two years at Greater Beckley. Hayden pitched some all three years," Cuthbert said. "(Senior) Josh Ward would have helped us in the outfield and I had another senior this year that I thought might be a big surprise. Phillip Spurlock came out. I wasn't sure how he was going to do baseball-wise, but athletically he was going to be one of the best I had.
"We had a lot of good athletes and we had 12 legit kids that we wanted to look at as possible varsity pitchers. The year we were runner-up, we had six or seven maybe, which was a lot more than anybody else."
Wyoming East finished as the Section 1 runner-up to Oak Hill last year and returned seven starters from that team, including arguably the two best arms in the region.
Seniors McQuade Canada and Matt Caldwell were both three-year starters on the hill and anchors in the infield. They would have been flanked by fellow seniors Clay Lester, Alex Hall, Jared Sandy and wide-ranging center fielder Chris Harvey.
Junior Chase York returned with sophomore sensation Tanner Whitten. First-year player Logan Miller was set to do the catching this year with freshmen Damion Brown and Garrett Mitchell. Luke Laxton, Dallas Parsons and Jacob Howard were also expected to see action.
"This would have been (head) coach (Ron) Mayhew's 45th year, my 32nd year and assistant coach (Chris) Lester's second year," assistant coach Kevin Hedinger said. "We were looking forward to this season and felt as though our pitching would help us compete with anybody in the area."
Shady Spring easily had the most restructuring to do after graduating a senior-heavy team. However, first-year head coach Jordan Meadows was confident his team would be in the mix for another run to Charleston this year.
The Tigers brought back senior Tommy Williams, a second-team all-state selection, to hold down the No. 1 spot on the mound, along with junior catcher Parker Redden, senior first baseman Grant Davis and versatile senior Drew Clark.
Shady would have had its hands full in the sectional round with Bluefield, PikeView and especially James Monroe.
The Mavericks returned a strong core of players, led by a senior group that had twice been to the state tournament during their careers.
Seniors Monroe Mohler and Xander Castillo hit over .400 last year and were dominant on the mound. Senior Eli Ballard was back to hold down the catching along with senior first baseman Harry Mohler. Junior Andrew Hazelwood gave James Monroe a third ace on the hill.
Toss in seniors Garrett Huffman, Brian Carter and Hunter Blankenship, along with junior hurler Cody Moore and another trip to Charleston was not out of the question for the boys from Lindside.
"I am not sure if we would have had the strongest region, but it would have been the most competitive," Cuthbert said. "If Oak Hill won (the regional) he had two or three good arms he could go to. If (Wyoming East) won it he had two really good arms. I am not sure what Shady had back, but he had one really good arm. James Monroe would have been stout and PikeView had a lot of seniors."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @Rusman1981