ROSEMOUNT — Going into the third week of April, the Clay Panthers had lost four games over their past six affairs and had only won two games since March 29. Not only that, Clay was facing a tall task to right the course, with six games over a six-day period.
What a difference a week makes.
Since the beginning of this past week, Clay used a 5-2 victory over Ironton St. Joseph and 24 combined runs in thrilling victories over Valley and West Union to kick off the first half of the week on a 3-0 roll. The second half of the week started in impressive fashion, as well, as the Panthers defeated Notre Dame by a 10-0 score in five innings in a SOC I battle in Rosemount on Thursday evening.
For Marc Cottle, the victory showed that his unit is, indeed, on the upswing.
“This team has turned a corner this week,” Cottle said. “I couldn’t be happier. We’re starting to really hit the ball. We started slow, but these boys are turning the corner and are really hitting on all cylinders right now. I believe that we’re going to be a dangerous team from here on out.”
As for Drew Mader, the defeat was certainly a hard one to take, especially considering how well the Titans had been playing on all fronts leading up to the affair.
“As a team, we just weren’t disciplined like we have been in the past,” Mader said. “We were overanxious for some odd reason, and I don’t know what it was, but coming off of the bus, we felt ok. We felt like we knew what we needed to do as a team. Last year, the same thing kind of happened to us. At our place, we played really well. Then, we came here; we’re up 10-1, and we let them back into the ballgame because we couldn’t throw strikes. We didn’t do that today, either. We got high in the pitch counts, and we didn’t execute on defense like we needed to. Hat’s off to Clay. They hit the ball well, ran the bases well, and were aggressive. They showed up to play and we didn’t.”
At first, Notre Dame looked look it would start the game off fast as Sam Kayser reached on a base knock. However, Kayser was picked off at first base, which proved to be an omen of what was to come.
In the bottom half of the inning, Clay’s adjusted lineup immediately proved dividends as a walk by Drew Hadsell and a single by Brody Riffe — with the latter advancing to second on the relay throw toward the third base side — allowed the pair to advance up into scoring position. Cole Gilliland’s RBI single to right center and McGwire Garrison’s RBI groundout was all Clay needed as the Panthers took a 2-0 lead after the first inning of play.
The offensive show only continued in the second inning, when Reece Whitley, who walked and advanced on a wild pitch, scored on a RBI shot back up the middle by Hadsell. Riffe then added a ground rule double that bounced over the left field fence to put himself and Hadsell at second and third, and Gilliland walked to load the bases.
That’s when Garrison, who hit in the cleanup position, came up with arguably the biggest hit of the contest.
With two out and the bases loaded, the junior hit a ball that bounced up in the air off of the ground toward third base for what looked to be a harmless third out.
However, as the ball returned toward the dirt near the baseline, it simply died and went between the legs of Grant Sparks, allowing Hadsell and Riffe to score. Continued problems on the pitching and catching exchange then allowed Gilliland to score as Clay added four runs in the second — all with two out in the inning — to take a 6-0 lead through two complete.
“I told the guys at the beginning of the season, ‘We don’t have quantity, but we have quality. I don’t have a problem with putting any one of my players in the game. In every game this season, every player has played. They’re just a good group of kids.”
The excellent play from the Panthers only continued as Riffe — along with a stout defensive effort by Clay — kept Notre Dame off of the scoreboard all evening long. Riffe allowed only four Notre Dame hits in a complete game effort, with none of the Titans’ knocks going for extra bases, while the Clay defense, who was fueled by excellent catches by Gilliland and Grant Hemphill near or in foul territory, didn’t commit a single error on the evening.
“Brody just came out and threw strikes tonight,” Cottle said. “I’m really proud of our defense. Defensively, I don’t think that we had an error. We try to stress that if you have two errors or less and two walks or less, you’ve got a chance to win a baseball game. When you’re only giving your opponent one base, you have a really good chance to win. Then, you add in the fact that we’re hitting the ball really well right now, and it’s going to make it hard for any team to beat you.”
With everything going its way, Clay just wasn’t going to be denied in its efforts. An error by the Titans allowed the Panthers to add another error in the fourth, while a walk by Whitley, along with two more pitcher-catcher miscues and three consecutive hits by Hadsell, Riffe, and Gilliland, allowed the Panthers to close the deal in a SOC I affair that took a surprising twist.
With tough contests against Green and East upcoming in conference play, Notre Dame, however, doesn’t have time to dwell on the loss.
“We’ve got to regroup and forget about (what happened on Thursday),” Mader said. “I’ve preached until I’m blue in the face that you’ve got to have a short mental approach with baseball because if you let things dwell on you, such as errors or anything like that, the ball’s going to come back and haunt you. It’s going to come back and find you every single time. We’ve preached about the snowball effect. We’re going to find a way to do our own thing, and play baseball like we know how to play, or the mistakes are going to continue to roll. Hopefully, we use this game as a learning experience, and we come out ready to play (against Green).”
As for Cottle’s bunch, the Panthers know that their odds for a SOC I title, at 3-4 in conference play, are slim. However, Clay is only concerned with finishing the year out on a positive note.
“We’re just looking to finish the season out strong,” Cottle said. “The boys are tired, but winning is giving them that extra adrenaline.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7