Part of what makes sports so great are the rivalries that are developed when two divisional or conference foes meet at least once a year and always provide a competitive matchup for all to see.
And while it definitely isn’t as widely known as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox or the Ohio State and Michigan rivalries that dominate headlines in our country, the Clay Panthers and the Notre Dame Titans have one of the best softball rivalries going in Southern Ohio and an underrated rivalry, in general, that represents the very best of what sports has to offer.
While the distance between the two schools is very close — 4.5 miles, to be exact — the quality of softball play is much tighter than even the short distance that separates the two programs.
But after it took an entire week to find out the result of Monday evening’s contest, the Clay Panthers’ softball program, once again, cemented its status at the top of the SOC I race for good.
Ohio Christian University signee Julia Swain carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, Megan Bazler reached base in all four of her plate appearances, knocked in two runs, and scored twice, and Clay, as a result, took home its third consecutive SOC I Championship with an 8-2 victory over the Notre Dame Titans’ softball program on Monday evening in Portsmouth.
The result, and the thrilling play that came from both units in Monday’s contest and the opening bout between the two programs last Thursday, however, drew mutual respect from the leaders of the SOC I Champion and SOC I Runner-Ups.
“We played great (last Monday), and we played great tonight,” Clay head coach Jason Gearheart said. “Notre Dame was better on Thursday, and we were better tonight. I believe that we’re even teams. They’re well coached, and if we played them tomorrow, they’d probably win tomorrow. They’re a good team. Everybody was down last Thursday, but we came back, fought hard, and proved that we are a championship team. It’s a nice little step. I hope that we both see each other in regional play. I have admiration for Notre Dame. It’s going to be a battle between us and them every year. That’s just the way it is going to be.”
“We got down 3-0, and when you’re trailing by that deficit, it takes bunting and small ball out of your strategy, so it changes the dynamic of the game a little bit,” McKenzie said. “I had a different lineup coming into this game that we had to stick with from a batting order standpoint, so we were behind in several ways coming into the game. Clay, however, is really, really good. There’s a reason why they’re ranked at the state level, and they proved it tonight. They hit the ball better than we did.”
Clay, who finished Monday with a 3-0 lead through three-and-a-half innings of play, obtained a two-out RBI double from Jensen Warnock in the top half of the first inning, then struck in the third inning for the remaining runs as Elisa Collins’ leadoff single, an error on a 1-4 sacrifice bunt by Shaelyn Vassar, and a rare bunt double by Megan Bazler put Collins in a position to come home on an error. Warnock then added a sacrifice fly RBI to set the table when play was postponed last Monday.
When play resumed, Swain, nor the Clay batting order, slowed down. The senior ultimately added 10 strikeouts over the final five innings of work alone en route to 13 for the contest as the future Ohio Christian University softball hand kept her no-hitter going until the seventh inning.
“Julia pitched great,” Gearheart said. “I was hoping that she would get a no-hitter, but against a quality team, her performance was impressive. She held Notre Dame down. They got a couple of hits, but those were my mistakes. I was trying to punch them out with fastballs, and they’re a fastball-hitting team, so I got a little bit overzealous. She mixed speeds really well both days. You have to mix speeds against any team that can hit a fastball. It doesn’t matter how fast you can throw. She did well, and the defense did good on the balls that they got to field. I’m really proud of them.”
“When we first started this game, we weren’t touching her, and that proved to be the same way for about three innings here,” McKenzie said. “We started to get to Julia a little bit in the seventh inning and put better swings on the ball, but she pitched a heck of a game, and when you spot a team like Clay three runs, it’s not going to work out in your favor very often.”
Even though Cassie Schaefer allowed eight runs to cross the plate, the sophomore still showed many of the outstanding qualities that have made Notre Dame’s ace one of the best players in the area regardless of division. Schaefer ultimately struck out nine batters and got a double play in the contest, a claim that only backed up Gearheart’s and McKenzie’s strong thoughts about the young sophomore.
“Notre Dame’s got a good group of girls,” Gearheart said. “Cassie Schaefer is one of the best pitchers that we have faced since I have been here. She is an outstanding pitcher. She throws hard. It was just one of those days where we were able to time her up, and were on her today.”
“I would agree with him,” McKenzie said. “Back in 2012, when I coached, I had two pretty good ones in Tori Harr and Miranda Pauley, and Cassie’s right there with them. She’s going to keep getting better and better. I mean, she’s just now at the point where she’s specializing in pitching. She’s normally a catcher. This is the first year that she’s worked really hard at pitching, and it’s showing. She works hard and always has good control, but tonight, she just happened to miss a few spots, and their hitting, one-through-nine, is so good that when you make a mistake, you’ll pay for it.”
In the top half of the sixth inning, Clay continued its offensive roll. A leadoff walk by Hannah Oliver, along with a bunt single by Lila Brown, allowed Vassar to drive Oliver in with a base knock to shallow right field, which landed just inside the first base line. Bazler then added a blistering base knock off to the right side to bring in both Brown and Vassar as Clay increased its lead to a 6-0 margin behind the freshman, who finished the contest by going 2-for-2 with a double, two RBI, two walks, and two runs scored for another outstanding line.
“Megan’s pretty tough,” Gearheart said. “She plays a lot of softball throughout the year, and with Shae, that’s a really good one-two punch at the top of the lineup. We’ve got a very talented team across the board. All of the girls contribute very well. It was a really good team effort today.”
Clay then continued its offensive roll in the top half of the seventh frame as a leadoff home run to left field by Jensen Warnock, along with a single by Swain, a double by Oliver, and a 5-3 sacrifice bunt RBI from Ryanna Bobst rounded out the Clay scoring, with Warnock ultimately going 2-for-3 herself with the solo home run, a double, a sacrifice fly, a stolen base, three RBI, and a run scored as Clay extended its lead to an 8-0 margin heading into the seventh inning.
Still, Notre Dame never gave in. In the bottom half of the seventh frame, the Lady Titans countered, as Schaefer broke up Swain’s no-hitter with a single that dropped into the shallow part of the outfield for a base hit. Then, following a 6-4 groundout, the Lady Titans obtained an RBI double from Taylor Schmidt and an RBI base knock from Baylee Webb to erase what it had given up in the seventh inning. However, the Lady Titans weren’t able to get any closer as Swain followed with her 13th punchout to end the frame, and the game.
“Coming into the game, we were only one or two big swings away from being right back in it, but it just didn’t work out for us tonight,” McKenzie said. “Cassie worked her tail off. Her location was a little bit off, and she’s normally not like that. Sometimes, you can make a mistake with a pitch, but tonight, when she made a mistake, they made us pay for it, and that’s the quality of a good team.”
Clay (20-4, 13-1 SOC I), who hadn’t lost an official SOC I contest since April 28, 2015 against Symmes Valley until its loss to Notre Dame last Thursday, has won 45 of its last 46 conference games since the aforementioned date — a clear sign that Clay is only a step away from approaching consistent excellence at the state level.
“There’s a lot of pride there,” Gearheart said. “The girls are realizing that it is a big deal, and as a result, we are possibly getting back to where we used to be (back in the 1980s). We have to keep rolling, but this is just one step. The next step is Northwest on Wednesday evening, so we can’t look far past that.”
As for Notre Dame, the Lady Titans, too, have regional aspirations. And why wouldn’t they? The Lady Titans (15-3, 12-2 SOC I) have already far exceeded what many have expected of them in 2018.
“Jason said, ‘I hope that we see you guys in the regional finals,’” McKenzie said. “That would be great, not just for Notre Dame and Clay, but for Southern Ohio, in general. Our goal is to get out of the district. We’ll take it one game at a time, and try to win the sectional championship first because it’s been a couple of years. We’ve got some things to clean up. We’ve got some mental mistakes where the age of the team shows a little bit, the experience of the team shows a little bit, and the experience of their team showed against us. Still, I’m pleased with where we’re at. If you had told me that we’d be 15-3 and battling for a conference championship at the beginning of the year, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. We’ve had a lot of people step up. We’re going to get back in there tomorrow and get this team ready to go into the tournament.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT