MINFORD – As the heat rose close to 90 degrees on the thermometer, the heat also rose in the Clay Lady Panthers’ batting order Tuesday afternoon in Minford.
And behind that red-hot batting order, the Lady Panthers were able to mercy-rule the Eastern Lady Eagles, 14-0, to advance to the Division IV, Minford I District Championship Game, against Paint Valley, Saturday at Minford High School.
Clay put up a seven-spot in the second inning, Tuesday, only to back it up with another seven-spot in the third inning. The whole batting order — from top to bottom — was firing on all cylinders. Eight different hitters scored, several more than once.
“It didn’t take us long to get going,” Clay head coach Jason Gearheart said. “Usually, it takes two or three innings. We came in and we were ready to go. We have been hitting the ball good, and we’ve hit a lot in practice. There’s really not much more we can do.”
Cassidy Wells kicked off the Clay parade by obtaining a base knock to start the affair. Elisa Collins and Hannah Oliver followed suit by reaching on bunt singles, and Wells scored on a wild pitch to give the Lady Panthers the lead right away.
In addition to Collins and Oliver, Chloi Hayslip and Lila Brown were able to leg out bunts to reach base. Hayslip’s bunt scored Collins, while Brown’s bunt loaded the bases for Shaelynn Vassar, who drew a walk to make the count 4-0.
“Our bunting is getting better, which will help us,” Gearheart said. “As we get down the road here, we’re going to be facing some good pitchers.”
After two pop outs, Bre Donahoe followed by doing what a senior does in critical situations by crushing a ball to right field to unload the bases for the Lady Panthers as Clay capped off the first of its two seven-run frames.
In the third frame, Clay proceeded to prove that their bats hadn’t cooled off. Abby Ware, who came in for an injured Hayslip, started the rally with a one-out single to right-center field. A bunt hit by Brown, along with a sacrifice that was coupled with an error, loaded the bases.
The next batter, Jensen Warnock, plated two runs with the sophomore standout’s single to left field. Donahoe then followed with a two-RBI base knock of her own, and followed by scoring on an error. And, last, but certainly not least, Collins obtained a RBI and later scored on a RBI hit from Oliver.
While the Clay offense was doing its part, the pitching and defensive efforts were strong, as well. Oliver threw two innings, allowing just one hit and a walk while notching four punchouts. Julia Swain went the remaining distance, and struck out seven batters while limiting Eastern to two hits during her time in the circle. The duo received an excellent assist from a defensive unit that didn’t commit a single error all game long.
“Both pitchers pitched well,” Gearheart said. “I did my usual thing, pitching both pitchers. I think it’s effective. I’m happy with both Hannah and Julia. They did a great job.”
Offensively, Donahoe led Clay by going 2-for-3 with four RBI’s and two runs scored. Collins went 3-for-4 with a RBI and two runs scored, while Lila Brown went 2-for-2 with two runs scored for the Lady Panthers.
With the win, Clay will advance to play Paint Valley in the Division IV, Minford I District Championship affair. This marks the third straight season that the Lady Panthers have reached the district finals, and the fifth time since 2011 that the storied program has achieved the feat.
On Saturday morning, however, Gearheart and the Lady Panthers will look to finally knock down the door and make their first regional appearance since 2010 — when Clay went all the way to the Division IV State Final Four.
“We’re going to try to knock the door down this time,” Gearheart said. “We’ve been knocking on it, but haven’t been able to knock it down.”