The waiting game had gone on for 77 years. The waiting game of a Ripley High School team state championship, that is.
So it was only fitting that Ripley High and its rabid fan base had to wait it out just a tad bit longer in a thrilling game to finally bring home some championship hardware.
Such was the case 15 years ago on the baseball diamond.
The school had celebrated a few individual state titles for athletes, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the drought came to an end with a Viking team once and for all getting the opportunity to hoist a West Virginia state championship sports trophy.
It took an extra inning to do so on that memorable night of June 6, 1997.
Ray Swisher’s Vikings posted a dramatic, 2-1, eight-inning victory over perennial Class AAA power Jefferson at old Watt Powell Park in Charleston to give the home of the Blue and White that first-ever team title.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, sophomore Kevin Thompson hit a high chopper to third and was safe by sliding head first into the first base bag. In the meantime, junior Joe Thacker, who was at second when Thompson came to the plate, took off running the minute his teammate made contact. Thacker never stopped running and, he too, slid head first into home.
When the dust had settled, Thacker was safe and it was bedlam on the infield grass at Watt Powell. A sea of white jerseys, trimmed in royal blue, rejoiced with several schoolmates and townspeople.
“That’s the only way to win it,” Swisher recently recalled. “It’s exciting not just for the players, but for the fans.”
Swisher said Thompson and Thacker were involved in what would resemble a hit-and-run. “John Lowery (Jefferson’s nationally recognized coach) and I are good friends. He knew I was going to gamble and try to score that guy (Thacker) from second.”
It was the final piece of the puzzle that Swisher had been working on for a long time as Ripley’s head coach. “That team started slow (early on in the season),” he said. “But we came on strong (in the regular season) and that got us ready for the tournaments (sectional, regional and state).” It was Swisher’s sixth West Virginia State High School Tournament appearance in what was then his 23rd season as Ripley’s head coach. Swisher’s ‘93 team had reached the title game of Class AAA for the first time in school history. With Jefferson standing in the way, the Vikings had to settle for the runner-up trophy. The year before in 1992, it was Jefferson that sidelined the Vikings in the semifinal round. So to knock off the mighty Cougars in 1997 made the title win even more significant.
Swisher, a Ripley High and West Virginia baseball coaching legend, said of the championship moment, “It makes you feel like you’re on cloud nine. It’s rewarding for all the kids you’ve had before hand.”
The hard-working Swisher had not only put in countless hours molding talent but also spearheading one project after another to give Ripley baseball a top-notch facility. The field itself was as well-manicured as any with Swisher usually doing the work.
Winning it all, was icing on the cake for the veteran coach.
Ripley took a 1-0 lead over Jefferson, which entered the State Tournament Final Four as the top-ranked team with just one loss, in the fourth inning. Jimmy Knight, a junior starter in center field, reached on a one-out bunt single, stole second and wound up at third on a throwing error.
Senior J.R. Parsons, the team’s senior third baseman, drove him home with a soft grounder back to the pitcher which was bobbled.
Senior Matt Brown was the winning pitcher for the Vikings with Thompson working in relief.
Jefferson, which had four championships to its credit coming into the tournament, tied the game in the top of the sixth to set the stage for Ripley’s bottom of the eighth magic.
Ripley reached the championship game by defeating Hurricane for a third time that season, 3-0, in the semifinals. Jefferson advanced with a 12-0 win over Mount View.
The Hurricane game was scoreless until the fifth inning when the Vikings staged a two-out rally. Junior catcher Russell Vannest singled and was replaced on first by sophomore courtesy runner Chris Williams, who immediately stole second and got to third on a bad throw. Senior first baseman Ben Parsons singled him home.
Ripley added two insurance runs in the top of the seventh. Thompson hit a one-out double and was driven home by J.R. Parsons. Vannest reached again on a soft liner to left. Williams, running for Vannest, would cross home plate again thanks to a base hit by Ben Parsons.
Junior Erick Hudson got the win on the mound for the Vikings.
Hudson, Brown, Vannest, Thompson and J.R. Parsons earned All-Tournament for Ripley.
The Viking lineup consisted of Brown and Hudson on the hill, Ben Parsons at first, senior Justin Landis at second, senior Shane Casto, Ripley’s current head coach, at shortstop, J.R. Parsons at third base, Vannest behind the plate, Thacker in left, Knight in center and Thompson in right.
“That team had a lot of good athletes,” said Swisher, who guided Ripley back to the State Tournament in 1998 (with Jefferson eliminating the Vikings in the semifinals). It would be a few years before Ripley would return to Charleston, but when it did another state title was won as the Vikings of 2004 knocked off Fairmont Senior for the AAA crown.
Championship number two was indeed special, but Swisher says 1997 is monumental as the proverbial monkey was not only lifted off of his Ripley baseball program’s back, but the entire Viking athletic program.
Swisher was assisted that season by former Viking standout Roscoe Taylor and Tom Lawrence.
Ripley’s roster that season also featured senior Michael Stephenson, juniors Matt Howery and Jeremy Stover, sophomores Scott Casto, Adam King, Austin Randolph and Jamie Stover and freshman Morgan Clendenin.
The team’s talent was not only evident with the accomplishments of 1997 but was also illustrated down the road for what some of the players did at the next level as athletes. Clendenin spent several years at the minor league level (including a stint in Class AAA) of pro baseball as a catcher with the Baltimore Orioles organization. Thompson enjoyed a stellar career as a pitcher at Duke University. Knight played a few years of baseball for Rio Grande. Shane Casto and Stephenson spent some time in NCAA Division III powerhouse program at Marietta College. King emerged as a solid special teams player and backup fullback for the WVU Mountaineers.
“It was a great feeling to win,” said Swisher. “All of our work paid off.”
And the waiting game came to an end.