RUBYVILLE — When the athletic programs inside the Clay and Notre Dame umbrellas get together for a contest, two things are for certain.
One, the contest that will be played between the two programs will be intense.
Two, the contest will feature competition that makes high school athletics so gratifying to follow.
On Thursday evening, the fans in attendance at the newly renamed Carol Vice Softball Complex were treated to a classic that would’ve had Vice herself smiling at the gritty efforts displayed from both softball programs at Clay and Notre Dame.
However, in arguably the best softball pitching duel of any county affair this season, it was Notre Dame who won out.
In a game that came out to the very last pitch and out, Cassie Schaefer’s complete game six-hitter stood tall. The sophomore’s effort inside the circle, along with her game-winning run in the top of the sixth inning on a wild pitch, allowed the Lady Titans to end the Lady Panthers’ 42-game SOC I winning streak in a 2-1 thriller on Thursday evening that evened up the SOC I race at the top of the conference standings.
For J.D. McKenzie, the affair was all about the focus and the execution of his girls from start to finish.
“We didn’t talk about any streaks or anything like that,” McKenzie said. “We just talked about coming out and playing a good game, and I’ll tell you what, everybody did well defensively. We were super sound tonight. Cassie pitched a heck of a game, we made plays when we needed to make them, and we scratched out a couple of runs. Clay is an awesome team that is super well-coached, and anytime you can beat a team of that caliber, it’s great and just fun for the girls. I’m happy for them and couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Even though the loss was very disappointing to Jason Gearheart, the wily veteran couldn’t find much to blame as far as the defeat was concerned.
“Hannah pitched well,” Gearheart said. “Our defense was good, as well. We got runners on and got them over, but just couldn’t get them in. It just wasn’t our night.”
At first, both teams were able to strike early as each team countered the other with a run in the opening frame of action. After a leadoff walk, Molly Hoover was able to reach second base on a sacrifice bunt by Isabel Cassidy, and advanced on home on the enusing overthrow to nab the speedy shortstop, but Clay countered with a run of its own as an outfield error allowed Shaelyn Vassar to advance to third before Vassar scored on Megan Bazler’s RBI bunt single to tie the score up at one apiece.
From there, however, the contest proved to be all about the pitching displays from both sides.
Despite facing treacherous situations in the second and third inning with two runners aboard during each frame, Schaefer and Oliver never lost their composure in the pressure-packed situations that awaited them as both pitchers combined to hold 15 runners on base. Schaefer struck out two and walked only two in her aforementioned complete game six-hitter for Notre Dame, while Oliver struck out six en route to a complete game seven-hitter for Clay.
“Cassie pitched a whale of a game,” McKenzie said. “She’s been big for us all year. She’s giving up less than half of an earned run per game this year. She commanded the strike zone tonight, made the pitches that we called, and she did a good job keeping them off-balance. I don’t think Cassie had her best stuff tonight, and she still battled through that lineup. She’s top-notch.”
The defense, however, certainly played a major role in the performance of both pitchers on Thursday evening.
After both teams committed an error in the opening frame of action, both units combined to commit only one error over the remaining six frames as dandy defensive plays proved to be among the contest’s main highlights.
A beautiful backhanded catch by Hoover in the middle innings, along with an excellent double play by Taylor Schmidt where the sophomore doubled off Cassidy Wells and Vassar by catching a fly ball in dead center and making a strong throw from the outfield, highlighted a gem of a defensive performance for the Lady Titans, while the Lady Panthers got a pair of excellent catches from Julia Swain on well-hit balls by Schmidt and Lauren Delabar to the outfield.
“It was excellent seeing that kind of hustle, but not surprising, because they are gamers,” McKenzie said of his unit’s defensive performance. “These girls just play their tails off. We came out and played great defense. At times this season, that’s been a little bit of a deficiency for us. We haven’t made easy plays when we should have in certain situations, and we did that tonight. We made the plays that we should make, and we came up with some plays that are hard to make. To beat a team as good as Clay is, you’ve got to make some plays that you don’t always make, and in every inning, we were trying to get one run. We had some people bunting that don’t normally bunt. It was just a fun game to be a part of.”
In the sixth inning, however, Notre Dame simply found a way to break through.
After obtaining a leadoff single from Claire Dettwiller in the top half of the sixth inning, a single by Schaefer, along with an outfield error, allowed both players to move up to second and third with nobody out. After an intentional walk to Baylee Webb, a 5-2 groundout put Oliver in a position to get out of another jam.
But with Paetyn Collins up at the plate, Oliver’s third pitch to the youngster went wide. Despite Wells’ successful attempt at blocking the ball, the pitch bounced off of the junior’s catching gear with enough force that it bounced down the first base line. Schaefer, seeing a golden opportunity to give Notre Dame the lead, didn’t hesitate, sprinted, and slid safely to give the Lady Titans a 2-1 advantage in the closing stages of the contest.
“That’s what we were talking about,” McKenzie said. “We just wanted to put a little bit of pressure on (Clay), make them make defensive plays, and try to get runners in scoring position, because getting players in scoring position does add a little bit of pressure to the pitcher and the defense that’s playing behind her. You get a mistake here or there, you can take advantage of it, and we did. I figured that it would be a tight, low-scoring ballgame, and that a run here or there was going to be huge.”
Clay, however, never gave up. In the bottom of the seventh inning, a walk to Oliver, along with a 1-4 sacrifice bunt by Lila Brown, allowed Oliver to move to second base with one out in the inning. However, Clay couldn’t get the key hit it needed to drive in a run, and with two outs in the bottom of the frame, Jensen Warnock’s pop-up in foul territory was caught by Dettwiller, who made the biggest play of the game by diving for, and catching the ball to start the Notre Dame celebration.
“Hat’s off to Notre Dame,” Gearheart said. “They have a very good softball team.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of these girls,” McKenzie said. “I wasn’t sure what everybody’s expectations were for this team when we came in, but with us losing so many people in so many spots, and freshman and first-year players over the field, it says a lot about these girls. They’re 14-2, and the two losses are by one run each. If a couple of things go the other way, we could be undefeated. They’ve done a great job all year, and they did a great job (on Thursday). As a coach, it’s pretty gratifying to see a bunch of kids come together and work so hard.”
With the victory, Notre Dame improved to 14-2 overall and 10-1 in the SOC I realm, while Clay fell to 17-4 and 11-1 with the loss. The Lady Titans and the Lady Panthers will play Western and Green, respectively, before reconvening on Monday evening for a game that will, for all intents and purposes, decide the SOC I Championship. The contest, which started a week ago and was in the bottom of the third when rain forced the postponment of the contest, will be played on Monday at 5 p.m., with Clay holding a 3-0 lead.