PORTSMOUTH — Over the past several weeks, the weather has been nothing less than a wild phenomenon.
However, as wild as the weather has been, Monday evening’s affair between the Clay Lady Panthers and the Notre Dame Lady Titans proved to be just as wild, if not wilder.
After establishing a 5-1 lead through the first six innings of play, it looked as if Notre Dame was going to pick up a big victory over its conference rival and fellow Division IV foe.
Clay, however, had other ideas. The Lady Panthers got a run back in the fifth when Julia Swain singled home Hannah Oliver, and in the seventh, a hit batsmen and four consecutive walks — which included Elisa Collins’ walk that drove in Shaelynn Vassar as the go-ahead run — allowed Clay to take home a stunning 6-5 victory over Notre Dame on the Lady Titans’ home field.
For Jason Gearhart, the winning effort was a credit to his girls’ attitude and confidence.
“They never got down on themselves or each other,” Gearhart said. “The girls have been playing well here lately, and even if we had lost, this was going to be a good battle test for us. We’re thinking big picture, so this was an excellent test for us.”
As for J.D. Whitman, the somber look said it all.
“We played good the whole game, except for the seventh inning,” Whitman said. “Things just didn’t go our way. It’s disappointing. It’s very disappointing. However, it’s also why I love the game of softball. Anything can happen at anytime.”
At first, it was the Lady Panthers of Clay who would strike the scoreboard first, as Bre Donahoe’s leadoff double in the top of the second inning allowed Clay to manufacture the senior across behind an flyout from Collins and a sacrifice fly RBI by Cassidy Wells.
However, it didn’t take long for the Notre Dame offense to get rolling, as the Lady Titans took the lead away from the Lady Panthers in the bottom of the same inning.
After Makayla Hadsell was hit by a pitch, a passed ball allow the senior third baseman to advance to second, and a walk to Maggie Whitman, along with a single by Catelynn Ball back up the middle of the diamond, was critical in allowing Notre Dame to load the bases.
And behind continued plate discipline, the Lady Titans wasted no time cashing in on their first scoring opportunity, either, as Sydney Whitman’s base knock scored Hadsell and Maggie Whitman to give Notre Dame a 2-1 advantage. An error, which loaded the bases again, allowed Molly Hoover to put together another two-RBI base knock that scored Ball and Sydney Whitman as the Lady Titans took a 4-1 advantage after two full innings of work.
“We had the mojo,” Whitman said. “Maggie was pitching a great game, and we were doing an excellent job at the plate.”
Notre Dame then added to their advantage in the bottom half of the third inning as Cassie Schaefer helped the Lady Titans continue their early-game roll by taking a one-out pitch and depositing it over the right center field fence to give Notre Dame a 5-1 lead after three innings of play.
“Cassie steps up in that situation, against good pitching, and just drilled that ball well over the fence,” Whitman said. “She’s a great hitter and can do it all. She did a good job.”
As the game reached its midway point, the contest turned into a pitching duel as Maggie Whitman, along with Hannah Oliver (who came on in relief of Julia Swain in the fourth inning) duked it out.
Whitman, who pitched six and two-thirds innings in the affair, struck out four batters, including three through the first five innings of action, and only allowed two Clay hits in that timespan.
However, Oliver countered by striking out an astonishing eight batters in four innings and allowed just one Notre Dame hit.
“Hannah’s changeup pretty much changed everything,” Gearhart said. “She’s hard to hit when she’s on in the circle like she was.”
In the top of the fifth frame, Clay grinded out a run as a hit batter allowed Swain to drive in Oliver with two gone to cut the advantage to a 5-2 margin.
But as the fifth and sixth inning came and went, it looked as if Notre Dame was well on its way to a victory — until the top half of the seventh came along.
After Cassidy Wells flew out to right field, Oliver got the rally going with a single, and an error, along with a hit by pitch, allowed the Lady Panthers to load the bases.
Still, a great catch by Hoover, who sprinted to her right to make an outstanding catch in the Lady Titans’ dugout, put Notre Dame within one out from ending the rally altougher.
Then the incredible happened.
With the two outs on the board and the bases still loaded, Vassar was walked on four straight pitches to drive in a run, and after taking a strike on a 2-0 count, Jensen Warnock drew two more pitches outside of the plate to walk, as well, and cut the lead to a 5-4 margin.
That brought up Donahoe, who was put in the same situation as Vassar and Warnock were. The senior proved to be crucial in the clutch herself as the senior worked the count full on Whitman, and drew a six-pitch walk to allow the Lady Panthers to tie the score.
“I stayed with Maggie (Whitman) there, and she either got tired or the nerves got to her,” Whitman said. “When Clay tied the game, I put Cassie (Schaefer) in, and anytime you change a pitcher midstream with the bases loaded, you’re rolling the dice.”
“That was our gameplan,” Gearhart said. “When (Maggie) started to throw balls, it was just about taking until you get a strike. I’m proud of them for not panicking and staying poised.”
With Schaefer in the game and the score knotted at five apiece, it came down to a showdown between the freshman and Elisa Collins. Collins, however, won the battle by drawing a full count and, later on, a walk after battling off a litany of tough pitches by the former to plate Vassar and give Clay the lead.
“This whole team, one-through-nine, can start a rally,” Gearhart said. “Every girl on this team can hit or get on base. We have speed all across the board, and it’s just great. Anything can happen. It’s a good little group. It’s all them. I just try to put them in a position to do what they can and try not to mess it up.”
Still, Notre Dame had one final chance to answer in the bottom of the seventh as the Lady Titans had the heart of their order in Hadsell and the Schaefers (Cassie and Hagen) up at the plate.
And with one out in the frame, Hadsell looked to have a sure base hit as the senior rocketed what looked to be a base knock to right field.
However, Donahoe — Clay’s lone senior — emphatically shut that threat down by reacting to and catching the bullet that was Hadsell’s line drive behind the great reaction to the well-hit ball. Cassie Schaefer then innocently grounded back up the middle of the mound as the Lady Panthers completed the incredible comeback.
“It was the play of the year so far,” Gearhart said. “Bre is excellent at the plate and always provides key base knocks for us, but that play was more important right there. I kid her all of the time about that big glove that she has, and she got to use every bit of it today. I’m proud of her. She plays hard, and she leads the team by example.”
With the SOC I up for grabs and both units in a great position to take the crown home, both teams expect Wednesday’s contest in Rubyville to be a battle.
“Notre Dame’s a great team,” Gearhart said. “I expect a battle on Wednesday, the same way it was today. Hat’s off to them.”
“It’s going to be a battle,” Whitman said. “Our backs are against the wall. We have to beat Clay on Wednesday, and if we beat Clay, we can’t lose again in SOC I play. If we don’t, and Symmes Valley beats Clay once, we’re in good shape. Hopefully, we’ll get a little bit of help, and come through with (the conference title).”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7