PORTSMOUTH — Back on April 11, after a loss two days earlier, Clay traveled to Notre Dame and, put simply, didn’t play well in an 11-4 loss.
Monday’s second game of the series between the two told a different tale.
The Panthers used the loss as motivation to earn a 2-1 walk-off win in a battle of state-ranked teams, putting an end to the Titans’ perfect record and forcing coach Jason Gearhart to deliver on a promise he made … he moonwalked down the first base line after the victory.
“Since I’ve been here, since 2010, this is probably the biggest win we’ve had,” a smiling Gearhart said. “Notre Dame is, every year, the best team we play. This could’ve went either way. I have total respect for Notre Dame. [J.D.] McKenzie does a great job with those girls. This is a huge win for us and it propels us towards the tournament.”
It wouldn’t have been possible without seniors Shae Vassar, Elisa Collins and Jensen Warnock.
Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, Clay (15-2, 9-1 SOC I) had been held at bay by Notre Dame pitcher Cassie Schaefer, who had pitched out of jams flawlessly.
But in the seventh, Vassar singled into left field, Collins slapped an infield single over a charging Schaefer’s glove and Warnock stepped to the plate with ducks on the pond.
Warnock laced a 1-0 offering into center field, sending Vassar racing home and delivering, in Gearhart’s words, the biggest win the program has nailed down in nearly 10 years.
“I knew [Schaefer] had walking in my two previous at-bats and I knew she probably wasn’t going to do that again since [Notre Dame] was in a tough spot,” Warnock said. “So I just waited on the pitch and tried to drive it anywhere I could. I knew anything that dropped, [Vassar] was scoring. It’s tough to hit against [Schaefer]. She’s a really good pitcher. So my teammates did an amazing job of getting on base before me any way they could.’
Warnock’s walk-off is what will be talked about. But Preslee Lutz’s performance in the circle shouldn’t be soon forgotten.
The freshman masterfully sifted through the Titans’ lineup, surrendering just five hits while striking out seven and working out of any trouble Notre Dame (16-1, 11-1 SOC I) presented.
“She made a statement tonight with the way she pitched,” Gearhart said of Lutz. “I’ve had her since she was six or seven and every year, she gets better and better. She has all the pitches, she has the speed and she was going against the best pitcher in the Southeast District. For being a freshman and to beat that team … she made a statement today.”
Clay struck first, scoring in the bottom of the first inning on an RBI single from Megan Bazler. That 1-0 lead stayed intact until the fourth when Chloi Hayslip singled into right field, scoring Taylor Schmidt and tying the game.
That set the stage for Warnock’s late-inning heroics.
“It’s an amazing win,” Warnock said. “[Notre Dame] got us at their place and we made a bunch of errors that night. But we kept preparing and we were a new team tonight.”
Warnock finished 2-for-2 with a run and an RBI while Vassar ended the day 3-for-4 with a run. Bazler followed those two, going 1-for-3 with an RBI.
Notre Dame’s Schmidt, Hayslip, Ava Hassel, Isabel Cassidy and Maddy Suter each had a hit.
Clay is back in action on Wednesday, traveling to Green for an SOC I contest while Notre Dame tries to regroup, hosting Western the same evening.
“I have total respect for [Green] coach [Shane] Jenkins. He’s turned that program around,” Gearhart said. “If we go in there thinking we’re all that, we’re going to get beat.”