PICKERINGTON — When a team wins 28 games, goes undefeated in SOC I play en route to a conference title, obtains a 10-1 record against teams at the Division II or III level, and advances to the regional tournament for the first time since 2010 — all with only two upperclassmen on the roster — one could see how the year could be deemed as a pretty good one, to say the least.
And despite a 7-2 loss to the Leesburg Fairfield Lady Lions in a Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal at Pickerington Central High School on Wednesday evening, the Clay Lady Panthers certainly had a year that will be remembered by the many individuals who were a part of it.
The 2017 season was so impressive, in fact, that Jason Gearhardt couldn’t help but remain upbeat following the loss.
“It’s been a good season,” Gearhardt said. “To be the coach of a great group of girls and see them accumulate a 28-2 record, I can’t complain at all. I’ll take that every year. We’ll be back next year. With nearly everyone coming back, plus a good junior high group coming up, the future certainly looks bright. It’s going to be fun.”
That bright future is certainly evident in the stats. Jensen Warnock finished the year with a batting average that exceeded .540 while leading the team in home runs (five), RBI (37), and doubles (15). Shaelynn Vassar collected 25 stolen bases from her leadoff position and drove in 22 additional runs while also exceeding .500 from a batting average standpoint. Hannah Oliver and Julia Swain each finished the year with ERA’s under 1.20 and collected 258 strikeouts combined in doing so. And Swain, along with Elisa Collins, Bre Donahoe, and Cassidy Wells — the latter of whom led the team in triples (four) and finished second on the unit in home runs (four) and RBI (35) — each batted at least .370 or better at the dish.
When you consider the fact that all of the aforementioned expect Donahoe return, and an eighth-grade class that contributed to a 16-0 conference campaign and a 23-5 overall record will be moving up to varsity play next year to join them, the overall results look to be of scary proportions.
And even though Clay fell on Wednesday, those scary proportions were evident in spades during the latter part of the Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal matchup.
After Fairfield added six runs in the first pair of innings on a RBI triple by Carli Reiber, a two-RBI single by Kourtnie Smith, an RBI single by Lauren Arnold, and a two-RBI double by Reiber, it looked as if Clay wasn’t going to be around for long.
However, the youthful Lady Panthers never quit.
Oliver and Swain, who split time in the circle all game long, proved to be strong over the rest of the affair as the pair only allowed two extra base hits over the remaining five innings of action after allowing two extra base hits in the first two innings of play against the Lady Lions.
“I’m proud of the girls,” Gearhardt said. “We fought back. We outplayed (Fairfield) over the last five innings. We just had a couple of bad innings there to start the game. They’re a good team, but we’re just as good. We played a little flat the first two innings, but we fought back and outplayed them the rest of the way. It’s a good experience for us as we head on down the road.”
Even though Fairfield added a run to its lead in the top half of the fifth thanks to a double from Lyndee Spargur and a RBI single from Megan Gragg that scored Spargur, Clay immediately bounced back in the bottom half of the sixth frame, as a single by Swain and an outfield error — which allowed the junior to advance to second base — was followed by a two-run blast over the left center field fence by Wells as the Lady Panthers immediately cut the lead to 7-2.
“We were right there with them from a hitting standpoint, but we just weren’t able to string the hits together to obtain the big inning that we needed,” Gearhardt said. “Cassidy has been hitting the ball really good lately. All the girls have, really.”
After Oliver forced a 1-2-3 seventh inning, the Lady Panthers mounted a charge in the seventh inning as Collins — who finished with 29 RBI on the year — collected a leadoff hit and advanced to third base on an infield error by Fairfield. However, after narrowly missing a three-run homer that sailed foul, Warnock was retired on high heat by Kaitlin White as Clay went down in defeat.
With the loss, Clay will have to bid farewell to Donahoe, who has been a lynchpin in the infield and at the plate during her time in a Lady Panthers’ uniform. The senior hit nearly .440 for the year and drove in 28 runs in 2017.
“You can’t replace a person like Bre,” Gearhardt said. “She’s a great leader, a good hitter, and has a good glove. I’ll miss her. It was a joy to coach her.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7