NEW MARTINSVILLE - To say it's been a wild ride for the Magnolia softball team this season would be an understatement.
To start, Mark Batton, who coached the Blue Eagles for nine seasons, stepped down during the middle of the school year.
His eventual successor, Dillon Mangino, wasn't hired until right before the season started, leaving senior pitcher Mallory Chapman and her teammates a little anxious by the time practice began.
Magnolia pitcher Mallory Chapman hopes to lead the Blue?Eagles to a state championship.
''We were all on our toes waiting to see who it was going to be,'' Chapman said. ''When we found out (Mangino) got the job, we were kinda relieved because we wanted to make sure we had a good coach. Coach Batton, no one could ever fill his shoes. The energy Coach Mangino has brought to this team has really gotten us this far.''
This far is the West Virginia State Softball Tournament, which no one in the the town of New Martinsville seems to remember the last time a Blue Eagles team made an appearance in.
That'll change at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when Magnolia (17-14), which finished sixth in the final Class A state poll, takes on No. 4 Sherman (20-13) in the opening round of the tournament at Jackson Memorial Park in Vienna.
''It's more exciting than anything,'' Chapman said. ''Sure, nerves are going to be a part of it because we've never been in that atmosphere before, but I think we've prepared ourselfes well enough for it.''
It certainly appears so.
The Blue Eagles knocked off the Wheeling Central Maroon Knights, who went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the poll, in a Region One semifinal before a 1-0, walk-off victory against St. Marys in the regional championship.
At the beginning of the year, the state tournament might have been a far cry for the Blue Eagles.
After a 4-1 start, Magnolia lost six of its next 10.
''We were trying to find where everybody worked best,'' Chapman said. ''Our hitting didn't really come on until toward the middle of the season.
''There was a stretch where we won three or four games in a row and that gave us a lot of confidence. Our hitting was coming on, our defense was picking up. I think that turnaround really gave us confidence and showed us, 'hey, we can do this.'''
Another factor that played into the Blue Eagles' confidence was Mangino.
''Coach Mangino being 24 (years old) and (assistant) Coach (Kayla) Brill, she's younger, too. They come down to our level a little bit. Seeing them get fired up and seeing them with all that energy, we really do feed off of it. When we see that, it makes us want to play harder and with more fire. I think, in some games, that's been the motivation and the momentum for us.''
Chapman, who is batting .410 heading into the tournament, is the unquestioned driving force behind the Blue Eagles' success and will likely be in the circle for all of Magnolia's games.
The senior seems fine with it, noting she's pitched two or even three games a day during her summer league.
''Hopefully we win both those games Wednesday - knock on wood - so that our other pitchers won't have to,'' she said. ''They're prepared enough that, if they did have to step in and throw, they could. Erin Clegg, our No. 2 pitcher, she's been working a lot on her own outside of practice, so that just shows the kind of dedication she has.''
Chapman will likely face Sherman's junior ace, Kylie Wells, who fired a one-hitter against Fayetteville in the Region Three title game.
The Tide, who are making their first state tournament appearance in school history, finished their season winners of nine of their last 14 games and are lead by senior Baylee Harless. Harless, who is betting .356, has started all four seasons at shortstop and will continue her career at West Virginia Tech. She also has a team-high five home runs.
The road doesn't get much easier as Magnolia will have to play one of the Top 3 teams in the state, win or lose, in No. 3 Moorefield and No. 2 Buffalo, the two-time defending state champions.
''No one on our team, not even our coaches, have experienced the state tournament,'' Chapman said. ''We're all new to this. After practice (Monday) we sat down as a team and it was almost like a heart-to-heart type deal. We just sat down and said this is what we have to do and we have to keep our focus on this tournament because this is it. We haven't reached our biggest goal yet and that's what we have to achieve.
''I think if we go down there and play hard and play our game, we have a shot.''