WAVERLY — No loss is a good loss. But if Jason Gearhart is going to take one, he’d rather it resemble the one his Panthers took Tuesday evening.
Entering the night undefeated, Clay (10-1) traveled to Waverly and allowed the Tigers (7-1) to score five runs in the bottom of the fifth inning — the final blow in a 7-4 non-league loss.
But Gearhart is looking at the positives … and he’s not making excuses, either.
“That loss is actually good for us. We haven’t faced a lot of competition this year,” Gearhart said. “[Waverly] is a good group. They were district champions last year. We held with them, had one bad inning. But we had our chances to win. I’m proud of them.”
The Panthers were without veteran pitcher Hannah Oliver, who was out sick. So the entire pitching load was placed on the shoulders of freshman Preslee Lutz.
Lutz took the loss, but threw six innings, allowed 10 hits and struck out nine. While it may not have been her best performance, she showed glimpses of Clay’s future in the circle.
“I think [pitcher] Preslee [Lutz] got a little tired and that’s usually when I would’ve made my switch to Oliver. But no excuses,” Gearhart said. “I’m very excited about Preslee. She went through the lineup the first time, just mowing them down. For a freshman …. I’ve got to have one of the best freshman pitchers in the area.”
Meanwhile, Waverly’s duo of Hailey Robinson and Zoiee Smith tormented the Panthers’ defense. Combined, the two finished 5-for-7 with a double, a triple, three runs and three RBIs.
“Hailey is always going to get the bat on the ball, find a place to put it and hit the ball hard. She’s one of our most solid bats in the lineup” Waverly coach Scott Hayes said. “Zoiee is our catalyst. She gets us going. Whether she hits on in the gap or drops one in front of the plate, she’s hard to get out. And once she gets on base, you’ve got to worry about her.”
Robinson got things started, logging an RBI single in the first to score Emma Bellaw and give Waverly a 1-0 lead. In the top of the second, Clay’s Cassidy Wells continued a torrid hitting streak by going deep, opposite field style, tying the game 1-1.
“Cassidy keeps the team up. She’s always talking, she hustles and she’s a great base runner,” Gearhart said. “She does a lot of the little things and a lot of the big things. She does it all. Without her, we’d be awful quiet.”
In the bottom of the third, the Tigers retook a one-run lead when Smith scored on an RBI single from Bellaw. Clay answered again during its next at-bat when Wells singled, stole second and eventually scored on an error.
The Panthers then took their first lead of the evening in the fifth at 4-2 when Jensen Warnock tallied a sacrifice fly and Wells singled to knock a run in.
But in the bottom half of that inning, the wheels fell off the wagon.
Smith singled and Bellaw doubled, scoring Smith and cutting the deficit to 4-3. Bellaw then scored on an RBI single via Kirsten Blair to the tie the game. With runners on first and second, Robinson lined a bases-clearing triple down the right field line, making it 6-4.
She’d later score on a fielder’s choice, producing the night’s final.
“I’m confident in each one of our hitters, one through nine. There’s a lot of bats that are there,” Hayes said. “Now, we can go cold at anytime. But we’re always going to put pressure on you and see what happens.”
Robinson led the way at the plate, finishing 3-for-3 with a double, a triple and three RBIs. Smith was 2-for-4 with two runs and Bellaw finished 1-for-3 with two runs and two RBIs.
In the circle, Robinson got the win by throwing three innings, striking out four and surrendering two earned runs. Her sister, Hannah, earned the save while throwing four innings and whiffing seven.
Wells ended the day at 2-for-2 with the homer, two runs and two RBIs while Lila Brown was 2-for-4 at the dish. The Panthers also got a 2-for-2 day out of Ryanna Bobst, who also scored a run and stole a base.
Clay is back in action Thursday night in an SOC I showdown at undefeated Notre Dame. The Tigers get back to business Wednesday evening at South Webster.
“We’re good enough [to beat Notre Dame]. We’ve got enough players to do it,” Gearhart said. “But it’s going to be a battle Thursday night.”