CHILLICOTHE — Over the past four years, Drew Mader and the Notre Dame Titans have been successful throughout the regular season. Multiple SOC I titles in that span are proof of the consistent program that has been built year in and year out.
However, postseason play had been a different story for Notre Dame from 2014 to 2016. In 2014, the Titans were upset by Manchester in the sectional semifinals, then were outscored by a combined 19-1 tally in 2015 and 2016 in the Division IV District Semifinals as Notre Dame fell to Tri-Valley Conference strongholds in Trimble and Reedsville Eastern.
Despite those trying times of adversity, however, the Notre Dame Titans never quit working.
And on Tuesday evening, that hard work paid off in a big way.
Behind a complete game five-hitter from CJ Corns, two hits apiece from Sam Kayser and Grant Sparks, and only one defensive error all game, Notre Dame finally put those hard times to rest by taking home a 4-3 victory over the Racine Southern Tornadoes in a Division IV, Southeast I District Semifinal matchup at VA Memorial Stadium.
For Mader, the veteran head coach knew that his unit was ready to accomplish something special from the get-go.
“We just had to get the monkey off of our back,” Mader said. “In the first inning, we had some guys who were saying, ‘Hey, we’re kind of nervous.’ I’m telling them, ‘Hey, that’s baseball. That’s the way you compete. If you aren’t nervous, there’s something wrong with you.’ Once we got that first inning out of the way we settled in and played our baseball. I’ve lectured these guys until I’m almost blue in the face that if we play our baseball, and if we play the Notre Dame way, the sky’s the limit for us. Hat’s off to all of our guys. They came out ready to play today. At school, we kind of talked about it, and there was no blinking. It was gameday. We took everything to heart, turned everything into our advantage, and ran with it.”
Notre Dame, who played rock-solid baseball all night long, was aided by Corns, who put together one of the best performances of his career on Tuesday. In addition to holding Racine Southern to just five hits, Corns struck out a whopping 13 Tornadoes en route to the complete game victory.
“Hat’s off to CJ Corns,” Mader said. “He threw the ball very, very well and kept us in the game the whole entire time. I just tried to tell him, ‘Pick your teammates up. Be positive. As long as you’re positive, they’re going to be positive and they’re going to pick you up.’ He did an excellent job. Hunter Berry caught an excellent game, too. He was a big asset in there, with blocking the ball. That’s the reason why he’s back there and that’s the reason why CJ is on the mound.”
In the third inning, Notre Dame responded to Corns’ standout efforts by collecting crucial runs to aid the junior’s effort. A base knock by Cameron Rodriguez, along with an error that allowed Drew Cassidy to reach base, set the table for cleanup hitter Tyler Speas, who delivered with a RBI single. An error in the same sequence allowed Cassidy to score, as well, as the Titans took a 2-0 lead heading to the bottom of the third frame.
“We knew that (Trey Pickens) was going to throw the ball very well tonight,” Mader said. “The guys were patient at the plate and they took command of the situation. They didn’t let him dictate the game by sitting, relaxing, and throwing strikes. This is when you want the bats to come alive at the end of the season, when you’re in a win-or-go-home situation.”
However, Notre Dame didn’t overcome the major hurdle of winning a contest against the Tornadoes without overcoming some obstacles along the way.
With one out in the third inning, Logan Drummond doubled and then advanced to third base when Dylan Smith notched a single. After Smith stole a base, Trey Pickens singled home Drummond, and an infield error on a slow dribbler allowed Smith to score to knot the score at two apiece.
In the fourth inning, the units continued to trade punches back and forth. In the top of the third inning, Sparks’ single and Trevon Turner’s walk allowed Kayser to drive in Sparks with his double to left field. That run, however, was immediately answered in the bottom of the same frame when a walk, a groundout, a passed ball, and a wild pitch allowed Jensen Anderson to score to notch the score at three.
But Notre Dame kept rising to the occasion — and ultimately, their persistence paid off. Cassidy’s leadoff single and an error on a throwover moved the junior to advance to third base, and the shortstop followed by scoring on another error to give the Titans the controls for good.
“Racine Southern tied it up a couple of times, which was our fault,” Mader said. “We had some blunders here and there. I take the wrap for some of that. We probably could’ve added a run in the seventh inning, but I didn’t send Drew Cassidy on what could’ve been a triple. That was on me. What I am really proud of, however, is that guys were taking ownership of their mistakes. That’s the leadership in a team that I am looking for. And we didn’t play down. We stayed upbeat and stayed positive.”
In the bottom of the fifth, the Tornadoes did their best to answer as Billy Harmon reached base on a two-out double and advanced to third on a wild pitch. However, Corns forced Racine Southern’s Blake Johnson into a 6-3 groundout to end the threat, and followed by striking out five out of the next six batters that he faced en route to facing the minimum the rest of the way.
With the resounding victory, Notre Dame was able to advance to a Division IV, Southeast I District Championship matchup against South Webster on Wednesday, with the winner advancing to the Division IV, Region 15 Semifinals on Thursday, May 25 in Lancaster. Mader said before the matchup that he was excited about the kind of atmosphere that will be present throughout the contest.
“We’ve watched South Webster play, and I’m sure South Webster was here watching us,” Mader said. “We’re crosstown rivals, and we’re both going after the same goal, which is to play 100 percent and play lights-out baseball. We’re looking forward to the challenge, and I know that Ryan McClintic and his squad will be doing the same thing.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7