PICKERINGTON — Over the course of the 2018 season, it was evident that Jason Gearheart’s prediction of this year’s team being his best one yet was, indeed, a correct one.
And if Clay’s 24-6 overall record, a No. 8 overall state ranking, three consecutive SOC I Championships, and two consecutive Division IV Southeast District Championships didn’t prove that to everybody in attendance, Wednesday evening’s gargantuan battle between the Lady Panthers and the Strasburg-Franklin Tigers’ softball program certainly did.
For 15 innings, both programs took their mascot names to great heart by fighting and clawing back-and-forth in one of the most thrilling softball battles one could ever hope to witness on the regional stage.
Unfortunately, Emma Clark’s solo home run to center field — one of three home runs hit during the contest between both squads and among at least a half-dozen others that traveled at least six feet of the outfield fence — proved to be the game-deciding hit as Jason Gearheart’s squad saw its season come to an end by a 5-4 tally in a Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal bout at Pickerington Central High School in Pickerington.
The loss, however, didn’t dampen Gearheart’s spirit or confidence in his unit in the slightest.
“It’s the best game that I’ve ever been a part of,” Gearheart said. “We had chances, and Strasburg-Franklin had chances. We are the same caliber team that they are, and the girls fought hard and gave everything that they had. This is the best team that I have had, and Strasburg-Franklin has a great team in its own right. I hope that they go up and win the whole thing. They’ve got a good shot at it. They’ve got a good pitcher, and so do we. We’ll be back next year.”
After falling behind by a 2-0 tally early on a two-RBI double by Clark that cleared a diving attempt by Ryanna Bobst and scored both Ava Ray and Taeshayra Alleshouse — who both singled with one out in the top half of the first frame — Clay answered right back as a hard-hit double by Shaelyn Vassar to left center field allowed Jensen Warnock to bring in her fellow classmate with a single down the left field line. However, a walk by Emily Rieger, and an infield error on a stolen base attempt by Rieger allowed Ray to drive in the leadoff hitter as the Lady Tigers took a 3-1 advantage after three innings of work.
But while Strasburg-Franklin was able to produce runs over the first trio of innings, starting hand Hannah Oliver stymied what could’ve been a much larger frame for the Lady Tigers by retiring Emalee Nave via a popout — and from there, fellow pitching hand Julia Swain took over and shut the lineup down for good.
Swain, who pitched the remaining 12 innings of the contest, did an incredible job by allowing just seven Strasburg-Franklin hits and two earned runs while striking out seven Lady Tigers and only walking three by comparison for a 2.33-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“I’m very proud of all of the girls, especially Julia,” Gearheart said. “To perform like that in your last game at Clay, that’s tremendous. She’s one of the best pitchers that I’ve ever had here. I’m going to miss her a lot. She’s a great kid. They’re all great kids. They all try hard. We wouldn’t be here without all of them. I thought that we did an excellent job today.”
And behind their senior leader, Clay not only fought its way back, but looked like the better unit in doing so.
In the bottom half of the fourth inning, Warnock wasted no time jumping all over a Zoey Thomas pitching by launching the ball well over the left field fence for a solo home run that cut the Lady Tigers lead to a 3-2 margin after four innings of work. Then, as Swain — who only faced two above the minimum from the fourth through the ninth innings of action — continued to roll in the circle, Warnock, who launched a one-out double off of the center field fence in the sixth frame of action — just missing a game-tying home run in the process — was scored by the senior, who helped her own cause by launching a single to left field that sent the Clay crowd into a frenzy.
“They both did great,” Gearheart said. “Jensen, I mean, what can you say? She has been on fire the last two weeks, and I’d put her up against anybody. She’s a clutch hitter. Julia pitched her heart out. Hannah (Oliver) pitched good, too. I made a little change there and went with Julia because they were getting on her.”
Both teams went scoreless until the 10th inning, when Strasburg-Franklin used a one-out double to right field by Ray and a single to left field by Alleshouse — the latter just staying fair down the first base line — to put Clay on the ropes as the Lady Tigers took a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the 10th.
But with one out, Warnock showed off Clay’s unmistakable poise once again as the senior made Strasburg-Franklin pay dearly for pitching to her with the game on the line. The first baseman, who ultimately went 4-for-5 with two home runs, a double, a walk, a sacrifice, three RBI, and three runs scored in the contest, belted Thomas’ pitch over the left center field fence to tie the score in a shot that had a Ruthian-type of feel to it.
“Last year, we looked nervous, and we got beat by Leesburg-Fairfield by a 7-2 margin,” Gearheart said. “We looked nervous and had jitters. This year, we were confident the entire time. We thought that we were going to take it.”
In the 11th and 14th frames, Clay came within inches of winning the game in both frames. An infield single by Bobst was followed by a stolen base, and Lila Brown followed with an infield single of own while also stealing a base on the following pitch. But with runners at second and third base with one down, a 2-5-2 forceout, along with a five-unassisted forceout where Alleshouse barely beat a sliding Brown to the bag, continued the game.
Then, after a base hit from Vassar and a sacrifice bunt by Warnock that was misplayed in the 14th, Cassidy Wells launched a single into center field that looked destined to be the game-winning hit.
But Ray, who was playing shallow in center field, came up and gunned a throw to home plate to Hannah Reifenschneider, who nabbed the sliding Vassar by mere inches. That set up Clark, who proceeded to end the game with her solo home run to center field, and Clay, who was able to put Oliver on second base with one down, fell victim to a 6-4 double play that ended the contest.
Clay’s effort in taking fellow perennial powerhouse Strasburg-Franklin to 15 innings, however, was nothing to be ashamed of.
“When you’re playing that many innings, you and your opponent are bound to get hits,” Gearheart said. “But the fact that we kept playing as hard as we did and held a perennial state championship contender to five runs in 15 innings says so much about this team. We hung right with them. Our defense played really well over the last three weeks of the season. We were right on point and hardly made any errors. That’s what got us to this point. This was the best team that we have played in my time here, and that’s a big-time game for us. What a game.”
And what’s better — Swain is the only player that the Lady Panthers lose. In fact, Clay will return eight seniors and six sophomores to the 2019 version of the roster, along with another highly-touted group of freshmen that should allow the Lady Panthers to have OHSAA Final Four, if not OHSAA Division IV State Championship, aspirations.
”Going into next season, we should be even better, and stronger, and learn a lot more,” Gearheart said. “The seniors will be great; there’s a good mix in between with quite a few promising girls that will be sophomores, and the freshmen that are coming through are going to be outstanding. We’re going to be even stronger.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT