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Eastern Panhandle prep baseball continues to grow

HURRICANE - The Hedgesville High School baseball team capped a remarkable season for Eastern Panhandle varsity athletics.

This school year's major Secondary School Activities Commission championships were dominated by schools in Berkeley, Hampshire and Jefferson counties.

The five big schools in Berkeley and Jefferson counties have traveled far for titles, but have gone home happy in football, boys basketball and baseball.

Martinsburg claimed its third consecutive Class AAA football crown, its second basketball championship in five seasons and Hedgesville won the school's first baseball championship, one year after the school claimed the basketball title.

The population boom in the areas near the District of Columbia doesn't appear to be letting up, leading to a seventh Class AAA school between Hampshire, Jefferson and Berkeley counties.

Spring Mills High School has adopted the nickname Cardinals and will open for the 2013-14 school year. The redistricting to accommodate the fourth Class AAA school in Berkeley County will take enrollment from students in the Martinsburg and Hedgesville districts and will open with just a freshman, sophomore and junior class.

The Eagles (29-7), who capped Dirk Webb's third season as head coach with a Class AAA state championship, will lose two varsity players - sophomore Matthew Mason and freshman Cody Hammond - and about half their junior varsity players to Spring Mills.

That doesn't mean a repeat title is impossible, but Webb notes that Spring Mills will be well prepared to start its baseball program.

"They're going to have some talent up there," said Webb, who in 2011 took over for Ben Merica, who stepped down after 25 years as head coach. "I think, initially, it'll hurt us as far as Hedgesville from a baseball standpoint. Next year we're going to have a lot more players on our squads that haven't played baseball for a high school team, whether freshman or sophomore, get into the system."

Spring Mills Coach Mark Salfia, a 33-year-old former Liberty-Harrison and Alderson-Broaddus player, doesn't mind the influx of coached players despite the competition the program faces.

"Just looking at our numbers and our addresses, just about all the kids we have signed up are Hedgesville kids," said Salfia, serving as assistant coach for the North in Sunday's North-South All-Star Game. "There's plenty of kids in that building (Hedgesville) and they're very well coached, so they're going to keep winning."

Martinsburg won't lose any players to Spring Mills.

"It's incredible," said second-year Martinsburg Coach Josh Matheny, a 32-year-old who served at Musselman for seven years before coaching the Bulldogs. "I think it's just the luck of the draw where they live. We had one kid that was potentially lived on the line, but he's a Martinsburg kid. Hedgesville basically is chopped in half."

The Cardinals will be moving into a crowded region that competed with Region 4 - which includes Cabell Midland, Hurricane, Spring Valley, Huntington, Nitro and Logan - as king of the hill in West Virginia.

Eleven-time state champion Jefferson and four-time titlist Martinsburg are joined by Hampshire, which won 25 games this season, and 21-game winner Musselman, in Region 2.

According to the SSAC enrollment figures, Hedgesville has grown from the 12th-largest school in the state with 939 students in 2002, to the fourth-largest with 1,711 following the most-recent reclassification prior to this past school year.

Martinsburg was the 18th-largest school in 2002, but grew into the third largest this year. All told, Hampshire, Hedgesville, Jefferson, Martinsburg, Musselman and Washington high schools are among the 24 largest schools in terms of enrollment in the Mountain State.

"D.C. and Baltimore, Frederick is growing," Salfia said. "It's not just D.C., it's all around. It's one of the spots that is growing right now. The cost of living is cheaper in West Virginia, so you live in West Virginia and work in Frederick or work in Baltimore."

The relative change in the cost of living from area to area impacts the enrollment in the schools.

"If somebody lives here (in the Kanawha Valley) and moves up there, they might say, 'Wow, I can't afford a house there,'" Matheny said. "If we go 15 minutes into Frederick County, either end, we're like, 'We can't live there.'"

Hampshire is the furthest Eastern Panhandle Class AAA school from the Baltimore area - about two hours - but has increased its enrollment by 410 students since 2002.

Jefferson, which has the most big-school baseball titles of any school in West Virginia, won its last in 2011 when it was the 14th-largest school. Perhaps not coincidentally, it won back-to-back titles (1998-99), when it was the fourth-largest school. Coach John Lowery Sr., who has more than 1,000 career victories, also won three consecutive titles from 1991-93, but enrollment numbers couldn't be retrieved from that period. Jefferson is the only school among the six aforementioned to have fewer students than it did in 2002.

"Any time you have growth like that and you have more kids in an area, you'll have more to choose from," Matheny said. "With having said that, the Eastern Panhandle has had good baseball for a long time."

Among the biggest concerns among schools in the Eastern Panhandle is the potential for transfers.

Although students are required to attend the school that is located in the district in which they reside, some coaches said there are ways around the rules.

Much like the Kanawha Valley, the close proximity of schools in the area leads to transferring and, eventually, imbalance.

According to Google maps, Hampshire is the furthest school from the other seven in the panhandle. However, the longest distance from any of the two schools - not including Hampshire - is 26.7 miles (Washington to Hedgesville).

Martinsburg and Hedgesville are just 6.8 miles apart. Spring Mills is only 7.9 miles from Martinsburg and located in the same city.

While it might not be as prevalent in a sport such as baseball, transferring isn't out of the question.

"You can not choose," Matheny said. "Wherever you live, you go. Kids will find ways. It is what it is. There are rules in place, but they find a way."

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at richstevens@dailymail.com or 304-348-4837.


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