ROSEMOUNT — Over the past several years, the pitching duels that have taken place in the SOC I realm have become commonplace. Tuesday evening’s Division IV, Chillicothe I Sectional Final contest between the Clay Panthers’ baseball program and the Notre Dame Titans’ baseball program just happened to be the latest example of that.
With its 8-1 victory over the Manchester Greyhounds’ baseball program on Saturday, Notre Dame was able to engage Clay in another classic battle — this time, in a win-or-go-home situation — on the campus of Clay High School in Rosemount.
But in a game where ace pitchers Dakota Dodds and CJ Corns ultimately combined for 24 strikeouts in complete game efforts, it was Clay who stood tall as a manufactured third-inning run proved to be all that the Panthers needed in a 1-0 victory over the Titans en route to showing strong poise for a unit that starts seven underclassmen during the evening.
And it was the effort of Dodds — one of those seven starters — who proved to be huge yet again.
“I can’t say enough about Dakota Dodds,” Clay head coach Marc Cottle said. “We just kept them off-balance all night, and Dakota’s got a nasty curveball. He’s got the best around. I give credit to Notre Dame. In every game that we played against them this year, they improved against us, and CJ Corns is the best pitcher around here. He’s going to be playing college baseball someday, I’m sure.”
As for Virgil Howard, the result of the contest was because of Dodds’ effectiveness with his breaking pitches.
“We just couldn’t manufacture a run (on Tuesday),” Howard said. “We needed to get a bunt down and we struggled in that area, and we struggled to hit breaking pitches (on Tuesday). We’re just not competitive up and down the lineup yet.”
Dodds, who used his masterful off-speed pitching, and Corns, who showed off outstanding velocity, were brilliant once again on Tuesday evening as the pair went the distance in addition to obtaining two dozen strikeouts combined. Dodds ultimately obtained 11 strikeouts and gave up just four hits during the contest, while Corns nabbed 13 strikeouts and gave up just four hits on his line, as well.
The latter only walked one batter and recorded a rare four-strikeout inning after a passed ball allowed Bradley McCleese to reach on a dropped third strike, while the former also walked just one Notre Dame hand and hit one as the pair proved to be in command of their pitches from start to finish. Both pitchers also navigated out of trouble in the middle innings by sitting down their opponents in short order after Clay and Notre Dame put two runners on second and third with one out in the bottom of the fourth and the top of the fifth inning, respectively.
“Going into the game tonight, we knew that CJ (Corns) was going to keep us in the baseball game,” Howard said of his ace. “He’s going to keep us in every game that we play.”
Both catchers, however, did their part as well in catching their flamethrowers. Clay’s Reece Whitley leaped high off of the ground to catch what looked to be a sure-fire passed ball, while Notre Dame’s Ethan Kammer threw out Keith Cottle and Clay Cottle, respectively, in back-to-back frames to begin the contest after both players tried to move into scoring position by attempting to swipe second base. Kammer, in particular, was referred to by Howard as the team’s most improved player following the affair, while Whitley is another one of the seven underclassmen that have helped make Clay’s lineup so effective in all areas.
“The big thing this year is the fact that we’re starting four freshmen and three sophomores,” Cottle said. “These kids have exceeded every expectation that I have even thought about this year. We’ve won three-quarters of our games this year and we’re ranked in the state poll. I would’ve never dreamed that at the beginning of the year. I knew that we could be alright, but these young boys have just been playing some good baseball.”
“Ethan has gotten so much better over the last three or four weeks,” Howard said. “He is really fielding his position well at catcher.”
Clay, however, was able to ultimately break the ice for the game’s lone run in the bottom of the third inning. After a walk to Shaden Malone with one out, Evan Woods, the Panthers’ leadoff batter, sacrificed Malone over, and with two out, Keith Cottle used a single to move Malone over to third. As Cottle beat out his infield single, the baseball was dropped in the infield, which allowed Malone to motor on around and score without hesitation.
“In the third inning there, Shaden got on, and we just manufactured a run,” Cottle said. “It was a very stressful game. On our side, we had a gameplan going in, and that was to throw strikes and play good defense,” Cottle said. “We had some very good defensive plays, and we got one run on the board to win. I’m not very happy with our hitting, but in a win-or-go-home situation, you never know what’s going to happen.”
With the victory, Clay (18-6) will move on to the Division IV, Chillicothe I District Semifinals at VA Memorial Stadium, where a matchup against Trimble — a 6-4 victory over Eastern — awaits.
“We’ll go up (to the VA) and battle,” Cottle said. “Games will always come down to who throws strikes, who plays good defense, and who gets the timely hitting. If you can do that during tournament time, you’ve got a chance to win.”
As for Notre Dame, the Titans will say goodbye to two four-year starters in Corns and Tyler Speas. In addition to Corns’ splendid performance, Speas — a multi-sport athlete — went 1-for-2 at the plate with a hit-by-pitch and a stolen base to close his own career out on a high note.
“CJ and Tyler were coaches for me this year,” Howard said of Corns and Speas. “They benefited me a lot this year. Of course, we’re very young, but they embraced their roles in teaching their younger teammates what the game of baseball is about at the high school level the whole time, and were guys who worked hard all the way to the end.”