RIO GRANDE — It may have taken only longer in terms of days, but the Notre Dame High School softball squad is indeed back in familiar territory.
That being the Division IV regional tournament —as “The Quad” at Pickerington Central High School awaits.
Over a span of an entire week, and facing two Tri-Valley Conference Hocking Division opponents, the now 22-4 and top-seeded Titans —spearheaded by junior pitcher Gwen Sparks —simply shut out their district competition at the University of Rio Grande.
On Monday, following Thursday’s 5-0 semifinal victory over Waterford in which Sparks struck out 15 Wildcats, Sparks windwhipped the Southern Tornado lineup two times through —striking out 13 batters as Notre Dame defeated fifth-seeded Southern (17-7) by a count of 9-0.
In supporting Sparks, and relief pitcher Kyndall Ford for the final five batters including Ford striking out the Southern side in the seventh, the Titans tallied single runs in innings one, two, three and finally six —sandwiched around a five-run fifth-inning eruption.
The Titans and Tornadoes played on Monday, thanks to the contest —originally scheduled for Saturday —being postponed due to rain.
Earlier in the week, Notre Dame downed Waterford on Thursday —because it too was rained out from last Tuesday.
But, no matter the time frame, all that matters for the Titans at Rio Grande was capturing the district championship —the program’s fourth consecutive and ninth in school history.
After district titles in 1987 and 1988, the remaining seven have all occurred in the past decade-and-a-half —in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2019, 2021, 2022 and now 2023.
There was no season in 2020, canceled by the Ohio High School Athletic Association because of the coronavirus threat.
Following Monday’s matinee, second-year NDHS head coach Shad Ford said the Titans came to Rio Grande again —even if it wasn’t on the original two days —and did what needed done.
Notre Dame sports only one senior —regular left fielder Libby Kelly —as the roster is loaded with talented and highly-touted juniors, sophomores and freshmen.
“The districts definitely are a goal, and now that’s accomplished. We are probably the last district in Ohio to play, but we handled the schedule changes, came here and got two shutouts. Gwen (Sparks) did a heckuva job for two games,” said Coach Ford. “We’ll take a run an inning for seven, and if we get a few runs with the two pitchers we have, we should be able to win. We’ll take that. We exploded there in the fifth for some insurance.”
Already leading 3-0 at that juncture, the Titans teed off on Southern pitcher Kass Chaney for five runs on five hits —as the Tornadoes had already committed three errors.
But none of those were in the fifth —as Notre Dame sent eight batters to the plate, with freshman Kate Entler walking to lead off, and fellow freshman Alayla Soard and sophomore Bree Hicks singling back-to-back to left field to load the bases.
With no outs, Ford helped her immediate future cause by mashing a bases-clearing double to left field.
“That definitely helped,” said Coach Ford, Kyndall’s father.
The Titans, against Waterford, finished with five hits the entire day —off Wildcat pitcher Kari Carney.
They had five in the fifth off Chaney on Monday, as Kelly set up those final two runs with a sacrifice bunt to move Ford to third.
Maddie Entler, who went 3-for-4 from the leadoff spot including a fourth-inning double, singled to score Ford with two outs —as Maycee Ford then doubled to right bring Entler around, as she stole second.
Coach Ford was wanting a better plate performance this time around from his Titans.
He got it, as Notre Dame drew four walks in addition to the dozen hits.
The Titans got one run on one hit and a Tornado error in the first and third frames, sandwiched around an earned run on two hits and another Tornado error in the second.
In the first, Maddie Entler reached on an error, Maycee Ford singled to center, and Entler raced home on a passed ball for the unearned run.
In the second, Hicks led off with a walk, stole second, and scored on a Kyndall Ford single.
In the third, Kate Entler led off with a walk and her courtesy runner Kaylyn Darden stole second —as Darden motored around and made it 3-0, when Soard had an infield hit on a bunt combined with a throwing error.
In the sixth, and with two out, Kate Entler singled to left, Soard drew a walk, and Entler’s courtesy runner Kailee Ogier scored on a Kyndall Ford two-out single.
Ford, like Maddie Entler, finished 3-for-4.
Hicks, Ogier and Maddie Entler all scored two runs, as Hicks had a third-inning sacrifice bunt.
Against Waterford, it was Entler with a fourth-inning bases-clearing double to left center that made that matchup 5-0.
“We got hot today and hit good some hard line drives,” said the coach. “Got some bunts down, ran the bases well, overall offensively a really good game. A credit to the kids for picking out pitches they wanted to square up. I thought everybody one thru nine put the bat on the ball. Only three strikeouts, I will take that every game.”
Speaking of strikeouts, Sparks combined for 28 in two district tournament tilts.
In fact, she struck out two Tornadoes apiece in innings one, three and four, fanned the side in the fifth, and actually amassed four second-stanza strikeouts —as a dropped third strike, Sparks’ lone wild pitch and two Titan errors kept that inning going longer than needed.
But Sparks stranded the two baserunners, as the only other Tornado runner for the entire game was Chaney —who doubled off Sparks to lead off the fourth.
The tall right-hander retired the Tornadoes 1-2-3 in innings one, three and five —and faced one batter in the sixth, before Ford faced the final five.
Against Waterford, Sparks took a perfect game into the seventh —as an infield hit ended it, and a no-hit bit, when Laykyn Jones led off and got the dribbler to fall fair between third and home.
In all, Sparks allowed just two hits with no walks and no hit batters in 12 and one-third innings of district tournament circle work.
Now, Sparks and the Titans tangle with Newark Catholic —in a Division IV Region 15 semifinal on Wednesday.
First pitch at Pickerington Central is set for 2 p.m.
Truth be told, it’s going to be a tall task for the Titans — as the Green Wave knocked out favorites Mechanicsburg and Danville in last week’s Central District tournament.
Plus, for Notre Dame, it’s a mighty quick time turnaround.
“That’s fine for us. We’ll be there,” said Coach Ford.
The Titans are the defending Region 15 runner-up, but Coach Ford has his eye on the ultimate prize.
“I would be lying if it (district championship) was the main goal. We want the big one (state championship),” he said. “Knowing we’ve been in the regionals the past two years will help us out a little bit. It will be good. It will be a good day.”
* * *
Southern 000 000 0 — 0 1 3
Notre Dame 111 051 X —9 12 2
SHS: Kass Chaney 6IP, 9R, 8ER, 4BB, 0HB, 12H, 0WP, 3K, 35BF
NDHS: Gwen Sparks 5 1/3IP, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 0HB, 1H, 1WP, 13K, 19BF; Kyndall Ford 1 2/3 IP, 0R, 0ER, 0BB, 0HB, 0H, 0WP, 3K, 5BF
W — Gwen Sparks; L —Kass Chaney