Clay coach Teresa Ruby knows exactly what her team is up against Friday in Ashland.
Sound defense, putting the ball in play and solid pitching are hallmarks once softball reaches the state tournament level. Friday should be more of the same, as the Lady Panthers take on North Lewisburg Triad, state runners-up from 2006.
Like other teams, though, the formula will not change for Clay, as the team looks for its first state championship since the 1980s.
“We're really not trying to change our game away from anything other than what we have been doing all year,” said Ruby, who played on the Lady Panthers' state tournament teams from 1978-1981, winning in 1980 and 1981. “I just feel like we will put up our best against their best, and see who comes out.”
Triad has many players back from last year's squad, including eight starters and only one senior, shortstop Meghan Shaffner. As she did last year as a freshman, Morgan Ryan will handle the pitching duties. She allowed just five hits against Dalton in the championship game last year before an error allowed the winning run to score in the bottom of the seventh.
The Lady Cardinals have solid hitting as well, as evidenced by a 12-0 victory in the district championship game. With Clay, however, runs have been hard to come by, thanks to a stifling defense and the pitching of sophomore Cami Groves. The Lady Panthers have allowed just one run in five tournament games, and Groves has struck out nearly 60 batters.
“You couldn't ask more from a young lady than the pitching performances that we have received from her,” said Ruby. “She's been more than just a thrower, she's been a pitcher. We talked about at the beginning of the year that she was going to have to mature and develop, and she has. She hasn't hurt herself, really, with walks, and has worked ahead in the count and challenged batters. From our standpoint, we couldn't have asked more from her.”
With Groves handling the pitching duties, the Lady Panthers have brought the offense in ready supply. The closest contest was a 2-0, eight-inning victory over Danville in the regional semifinal at Pickerington, but even that was capped off with home runs by Mallory White and Dani Summers. Groves got into the home run act against Crestline in the regional, hitting a two-run home run in the top of the seventh to seal a 4-0 win.
The offensive performances have carried over to the defense, as Clay has been stingy in giving up runs, allowing just one from Symmes Valley in a district semifinal.
“We have played very strong defensively throughout the tournament,” said Ruby. “That's been a big key, and timely hitting.
“We have been fortunate throughout the year that offensively, we have had different people step up. You'll see some teams that if the top of their lineup isn't contributing, they really struggle. For us, we've had different people, and we've gotten power throughout our lineup. I have six different girls in our starting nine who have hit home runs during the season. So, we've got good power throughout the lineup, and I feel like at any given point, Nos. 1 through 9, we are capable of hitting extra base hits and even home runs.”
Among those contributing to the Lady Panthers' hitting surge have been seniors Brittany Weeks and Chassidy Adams, junior catcher Kristen Adams and freshmen Laura Belcher and Tori Osborne. Similar performances like those throughout the tournament will be needed if Clay wants to stay in Ashland one day and play for the state crown.
Along with Triad, the other two teams at the state tournament, Convoy Crestview and Dalton, have plenty of tournament experience, while Clay may not be getting as much attention. That could suit Ruby and the Lady Panthers just fine.
“We've used it in the regional,” said Ruby. “We talked about the fact that nobody knows who we are. We need to earn the respect that we want, and we need to show them that we know how to play ball in southern Ohio, because you hear a lot of that. Again, we have used it as a rallying point for us. I like playing the underdog. The pressure is not there for you, you've got nothing to lose, and you just need to show up and play. I think we have as talented a team as what is going to be there.”
Many know who Clay is now, and should the Lady Panthers win two more, so will the rest of the state. Ruby is not looking that far ahead, but a state crown and another year to add to the banner - Ruby's first a coach - will be special.
“It would just make me happy for the girls,” she said. “I've talked to them a lot about the experience of it, and what it would mean to them, and what it meant to me. If we were to get to that point, to where we get to take the trophy home, it would just make me happy for the girls, because they have worked hard. It would make me happy for our community because they've been so very supportive of us. It would really be all about them.”
JOSH HICKLE can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 241.