RUBYVILLE — Heavily favored and prepared to go on a deep tournament run, Clay’s softball program ran into a dangerous combination Thursday evening in a Division IV sectional final.
Hosting No. 9 seed Paint Valley, the top-seeded Panthers saw a team that had nothing to lose, a team that was clicking on all cylinders and a team that played the underdog role to perfection.
The Bearcats (7-16) stunned the top-seeded Panthers by an 8-5 final, sending Clay home early and advancing into a district semifinal.
“They deserved to win that game,” Clay coach Jason Gearheart said of Paint Valley. “They outplayed us. They put the ball in play, put pressure on us and they flat out beat us today.”
The sectional final loss is the first at that juncture since 2005 for Clay and marks just the third time in program history where it hasn’t advanced to the district tournament. Since 1978, the Panther have tallied 39 sectional titles alongside 24 district and nine regional crowns.
Coming into the matchup, Paint Valley coach Ryan Smith knew exactly what his Bearcats were up against. So when he was preparing to discuss beating that type of foe with his girls, he asked for some extra help from the big guy in the sky.
“I’d been praying that the Lord would give me a story to tell because I knew exactly what we were up against,” Smith said. “Yesterday, I was walking and the good Lord told me to look down. I look down and this stone caught my eye. [The Lord] said, ‘I want you to talk about David and Goliath.’”
The Panthers (22-3) were the No. 8 ranked team in the state and had no plans of going home early. They were indeed a “giant” to beat.
“I picked the stone up, carried it around in my pocket all day today and all day yesterday,” Smith said. “I just kept thinking, ‘How am I going to tell the story?’ When we got [to Portsmouth], we went out to left field and I pulled the stone out. I asked them if they’d ever heard the story of David and Goliath. Some of them raised their hand and said, ‘Yeah.’ I told them the giant was over 10-feet tall and that’s Clay. We’re David. We’re not expected to win a ballgame at all.”
The Bearcats did so behind freshman Abbi Stanforth in the circle and senior Lea McFadden, among a host of others, at the the plate.
And, out of the gate, they came out swinging.
The Bearcats began the night with a three-run first inning thanks to an RBI single from Haylee Vaughn and a defensive miscue that allowed two additional runs to score. Clay got its first run in the bottom of the inning on an RBI single via Cassidy Wells.
But Paint Valley quickly stretched its lead back to three when Paige Rickey drew a bases loaded walk in the second, making it 4-1. That score would stand until the bottom of the fifth when the Panthers got an RBI single from Megan Bazler before another run scored on error.
Leading 4-3 in the top of the sixth, Olivia Smith singled before Vaughn walked. That’s when McFadden stepped to the plate and delicately put the cherry on top of the icing.
The senior catcher muscled a pitch over the centerfield fence, giving the Bearcats a late 7-3 lead and a shot of momentum when they needed it the most.
“Coming in, we weren’t too sure what to expect,” McFadden said. “We knew [Clay] was good. We were the lower seed and they were the higher seed. We knew we had to give it our all. That’s what we did tonight. We played unstoppable defense, Abbi pitched a great game and we hit the ball well.”
PV’s Savannah Smith tacked on an insurance run in the seventh, making it 8-3, before Stanforth held down the fort in the bottom half — after the Panthers had scored two runs on a bases loaded walk and an RBI single from Shae Vassar — by getting her last batter to pop-up with the bases loaded.
Stanforth threw all seven innings, allowed three earned runs on 11 hits and struck out three. That’s coming against one of the state’s best lineups from top to bottom.
McFadden finished 4-for-5 at the plate with two doubles, the homer and three RBIs. Olivia Smith was 3-for-5 with three stolen bases and three runs, Vaughn ended the night 1-for-3 with with two walks, two runs and an RBI, and Savannah Smith went 2-for-4 with an RBI.
Vassar led the Panthers, finishing 4-for-5 with a run and two RBIs while Bazler was 2-for-4 with a double, a run and an RBI. Cassidy Wells was 1-for-3 with an RBI and Preslee Lutz was frequently on base, going 0-for-1 with three walks and an RBI.
The loss forces Clay to bid adieu to eight seniors — Vassar, Ryanna Bobst, Lila Brown, Elisa Collins, Hannah Oliver, Cassidy Wells, Abigale Ware and Jensen Warnock.
In the past four years, that group has led Clay to an overall record of 99-16.
“We’ve won almost 100 games in four years and that doesn’t happen without them,” Gearheart said. “This is a once in a lifetime class. I just stayed out of the way and let them do what they did. They’re a great class and they’ll go down as one of the best ever at Clay.”