RIO GRANDE — One way the younger generation loves to communicate is with emojis: a digital image used to show emotion, primarily used in text messaging.
Clay junior Shaelyn Vassar had one in mind to describe her game.
“I would have to go with the tongue out with the money sign,” Vassar said.
Fitting, because the third baseman was on the money in Clay’s 9-2 win over Peebles in the district championship on Saturday afternoon.
Vassar finished 2-for-4 on the day, driving in four runs. She also made her name known in the field, making multiple defensive plays to help the Panthers advance to the region tournament.
Such has become the norm for the scrappy infielder, according to her head coach.
“She does what she always does, she has a very high standard for herself and she’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever had,” Clay coach Jason Gearheart said. “Every practice, she’s always in there. She’s gritty, she plays with anger I think, and just watch her play. She plays great.”
“She shows up in the winter, it just makes me feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. She plays like you’re supposed to play, and everybody else feeds off of her.”
Throughout the season, Vassar normally batted at the top of the order. But in the game against the Indians, Gearheart shifted her down to the three spot in the lineup.
Despite the change, Vassar and the Panthers were unaffected as they put up 10 hits over the course of the contest.
It wouldn’t take long for Clay to get their offense going, either.
Leading off, Ryanna Bobst (1-for-3, two runs, two RBI) reached on a walk to start the game. She was advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt from Lila Brown, which then brought Vassar to the plate.
Vassar cranked a double to the outfield, then slid into second. Bobst would come in to score, and a throwing blunder gave Vassar a chance to make it home.
“I slid in to second, and I couldn’t really get up fast enough,” Vassar said. “Whenever I saw the ball got past the second baseman, I kept going. Jason said “get on your horse,” and I got to home.”
As Vassar crossed the plate, Clay went ahead 2-0 in the opening inning.
In the third, Peebles would even the score.
Back-to-back doubles from Hailey Moore (2-for-3) and Madison Pierce (1-for-4) made the score 2-1. Then, Kylie Sims (2-for-2) brought Pierce home with an RBI single.
The Panthers wasted no time in reclaiming the lead, grabbing a one run advantage in the bottom of the third on a single to left field from Cassidy Wells (2-for-4).
A walk to Hannah Oliver loaded the bases with one out, but Shaley Munion popped out for the second out of the frame in the next at bat for Clay.
Facing a full count with the bases loaded and two outs, Bobst brought two runners home with a single to right center field.
“She had a little flare, and that got us rolling,” Gearheart said. “We started punching, and once this team starts hitting we’re hard to stop.”
Brown would then draw a walk, which brought Vassar to the dish with the bases still jacked.
It was a big situation for Vassar in her new spot of the batting order.
“I knew I had to do something, because bases were loaded,” Vassar said. “He put me in a really tough position, because I was batting third and I normally batted second or leadoff this year. He believed in me and put me in the three hole, and I was really nervous but I produced at the plate today so I’m really happy.”
Vassar in fact produced in a major way, clearing the bases on a three RBI double to left field. With that, the Panthers were now in front 8-2.
Clay scored five runs in the inning with two outs, and would cruise the rest of the way to a win.
The Panthers got a prime pitching performance from two pitchers – Julia Swain and Hannah Oliver – who combined for five strikeouts apiece and allowed just two runs the entirety of the game.
Swain and Oliver have been a major factor for their school all throughout the year and in their careers, and will no doubt be big moving forward if Clay hopes to continue their tournament ride.
Jensen Warnock belted a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth inning for the final score of the outing.
As she rounded the bases, her teammates emerged from the dugout to form a tunnel for Warnock to run through as she headed back to her seat.
Warnock ran through the impromptu formation, and Clay coasted to a district championship.
In what was an all-around performance from the entire team, the Panthers saw their bats come alive and an outstanding effort from their pitching staff.
“We just came out and smacked the ball around,” Geartheart said. “I was waiting on one of these days to happen, and it happened today. We usually hit in spurts, but everybody was hitting today, so I was pretty happy about that.”
“Peebles is one of the better teams we’ve played all year. They hit the ball, but our pitchers just kept them off balance today.”
Gearheart is used to seeing this type of performance from his club. They’ve rose to the occasion throughout the regular season, and are looking to do much of the same now in the regional tournament.
“The whole team has contributed this year,” Gearheart said. “Bench players, base runners, courtesy runners – everybody has gotten involved this year. It’s been a true team effort, and I hope we can continue it.”
Next up for Clay is a meeting with Strasburg, who is coming off a 4-3 win over Tuscarawas Central Catholic. The two will face off on Wednesday at 5 PM, at Pickerington Central High School.
“I am so excited to play Strasburg in the regionals,” Vassar said. “I really think we have a good chance, we have a great group of girls.”
Gearheart knows what Strasburg is capable of, but says the Panthers will play it like any other game.
“This is just another game to us,” Gearheart said. “I know what Strasburg is capable of doing, they’re a perennial champion.”
“We are a different team this year, we’re a better team than last year. We were 28-2 last year, but this team is better. We’ve played a hard schedule, and we’re looking forward to playing the best in the state.”