MINFORD — Despite a plethora of chances in a Division IV, Minford I District Final matchup against the Paint Valley Lady ‘Cats, the Clay Lady Panthers hadn’t scored a run since the second inning, and as a result, faced a litany of tough situations throughout.
However, the bottom of the 10th inning provided another opportunity with Julia Swain standing on second and Bre Donahoe camped out on first. With one away, Elisa Collins had a chance to be a hero.
Collins had previously went 0-for-4 from the plate. However, with the game and the district championship on the line, Collins hit a line drive to right-center field, scoring Swain and sending Clay to the regional finals with a 2-1 victory over Paint Valley at Minford High School.
Panthers head coach Jason Gearheart knew the game was going to come down to a clutch hit or two, especially against Paint Valley (16-8) pitcher Mikayla Newland who struck out 17 batters on the day.
“With a pitcher that’s signed to go to Akron, I knew exactly what kind of ball game this was going to be, possibly an extra inning game,” Gearheart said. “But we hit her pretty hard. The faster it gets, the better we hit. We just didn’t score when we had the opportunities, but that was a big hit there by Elisa Collins. I told her at practice I just needed one of them and there it was.”
Clay (28-1) scored the first run of the game and its only other run in the second inning when Cassidy Wells hit a homerun to left-center field.
“Cassidy Wells had a monster hit for us right there,” Gearheart said. “She’s been hitting the ball really well lately.”
The Panthers recorded eight hits in the contest, but left 10 runners on base, including bases loaded situations in the sixth and ninth innings.
“We had scattered hits,” Gearheart said. “We got them on, got them over, we just couldn’t get them in. But I’m proud of this team. We’ve worked really hard and we’ve been on a roll. We’ve gotten here three years in a row and we finally got over the hump. I’m ecstatic for them.”
Still, Clay persevered through adversity, despite struggling to find runs for the majority of the day, That perseverance came in large part due to the pitching duo of Hannah Oliver and Swain, with the latter coming on in relief in the fourth inning. Together, the pair combined for 21 strikeouts and only allowed one run over 10 innings in the championship-winning effort.
“They been doing that all year,” Gearheart said. “They’re different pitchers. Hannah’s got a good changeup and Julia has great movement on the ball. They work well together and Julia understands, when she comes in, she really doesn’t care if she gets the wins. She just comes in and does her job, and usually shuts them down. It’s a two-headed monster and I’m glad I have them, and I’ve got them next year as well.”
With a trip to the regional finals on the horizon, Gearheart was elated to claim that elusive district title.
“The word I would use is finally,” Gearheart said. “I’m ecstatic and tired. We’ve been going at it so hard and I didn’t want it to stop. That’s the main thing I was worried about. I wanted to win the game, but I didn’t want it to stop because I love coaching these girls. They play hard. I’ve had them since they were little. It’s a dream come true for them and me.”
With the win, Clay will advance to the Division IV, Region 15 Semifinals at Pickerington High School, where the Lady Panthers will face off against Leesburg Fairfield at 5 p.m. on Wednesday. It marks Clay’s first appearance in a Division IV regional tournament since 2010.
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1927, or on Twitter @crslone.