RIO GRANDE — This time, there was simply no Titan-ic meltdown, and simply no improbable Peebles comeback.
Indeed, this time, the Notre Dame queens of the diamond season is not prematurely dead.
Rather instead, the Titans’ tournament albatross that has been the Indians is officially off their necks —thanks to Tuesday’s 7-2 triumph in a Division IV Southeast District softball semifinal at the University of Rio Grande.
That’s correct, as Notre Dame’s demons of the past two Region 15 semifinals against the Indians are exorcised —and the top-seeded in the entire Southeast District Division IV Titans took great joy in brushing the Indians all aside.
Peebles put two runs up in the top of the second inning, including one unearned, but the Titans took total control from there —scoring the final seven points as sophomore pitcher Gwen Sparks struck out 14 Indians, accounting for exactly two-thirds of the total Peebles outs.
The Titans took their 7-2 advantage with two runs each in the second and fourth frames —sandwiched around a third-frame three-spot.
But, it wasn’t until that seventh inning, in which Notre Dame did lead 7-2, that the Titans could finally exhale —with Sparks putting Peebles out of the way after a one-out walk to Avery Storer.
On the next at-bat, by Lily McFarland, Notre Dame second baseman Annie Dettwiller made a spectacular yet difficult over-the-shoulder kinda catch in shallow right field —keeping Storer at first base and even extinguishing further any idea of an Indian rally.
Finally, Sparks struck out Abigail Smalley to end the game —as the tall circle standout stood in the center with her arms raised high, joined promptly by her Titan teammates in celebration.
The win raised Notre Dame’s stellar record to 17-1 under first-year head coach Shad Ford, advanced the Titans to Saturday’s Division IV district championship bout and, perhaps most importantly, got the proverbial monkey —more like a gorilla though —off everybody’s backs.
Two years ago, in a battle of then 22-2 teams, Peebles picked off Notre Dame 2-0 in the regional semifinals at Pickerington Central.
The Pickerington Central quad then served as the Titans’ “scene of the crime” last season —when Notre Dame, despite leads of 6-0 and 8-1, completely collapsed in that regional semifinal’s second half.
The Indians amounted a memorable comeback from the fifth inning onward —and simply stunned the-then 23-1 Titans to the tune of 10-9 in nine innings.
Of course, there was no 2020 season which was canceled because of the coronavirus threat, so perhaps Peebles and Notre Dame would have met up again.
Most of the 2022 Titans played in that contest a year ago, including Sparks, who simply couldn’t find the strike zone — following dominating the Indian lineup the first time through.
This time, with Sparks leading the spirited charge, there were no such shockwaves.
“We definitely wanted this game badly tonight after last year. I knew I needed to stay focused and take it one pitch at a time. Coach (Shad) Ford wanted me to keep them off balance, so I really worked on my change-up this week. I am so proud of my defense who made some great plays and the bats came alive when we needed them,” said Sparks. “Coach wanted us to take care of business, but still have fun and we did that. We got the monkey off our back from last year, and now are just looking towards Saturday.”
Ford, an assistant to former NDHS head coach J.D. McKenzie who remains on the current staff, echoed about the relief which Sparks talked about.
“It’s a big-time relief,” said Ford, bluntly. “I told the girls after the game that it is a relief to get by Peebles. They’ve beat us the past few times they’ve played us, and last year was just an unfortunate epic fail. So yeah, it’s a big-time relief, really.”
And, it’s the Titans’ measure of revenge.
Sparks certainly got hers in the circle, striking out 14 —with two in every inning.
She retired the side 1-2-3 in innings one, four, five and six —and faced four Indians apiece in the third and final frames.
At one point, Sparks sat down 11 Indians in a row —as the only Peebles baserunners following McFarland’s two-out second-stanza walk were Storer’s seventh-inning walk, and Caydence Carroll’s two-out single in the third.
Lanie Johnston, Sparks’ pitching counterpart, led off the second with a single and a stolen base —and then scored when Darby Mills mashed a triple on the next at-bat.
Mills scored on a passed ball on McFarland’s first appearance, but her, Carroll and Storer never made it beyond first base.
Ford spoke to Sparks’ simple mastery on Tuesday.
“We knew they were going to try and lay off her riseball and take some pitches, but Gwen mixed in some change-ups and kept them off-balance with her other pitches working. She is that kind of pitcher, not just a one-pitch pitcher,” said the coach. “She has three or four that can really dominate you. She stepped up big for us.”
The remaining seven outs were all unassisted putouts, with only one ball —by Carroll for a flyout —even hit out of the infield.
“No errors is big. We’re pretty solid defensively anywhere, and I have full confidence in our team,” said Ford. “The strikeouts are a bonus, but when the ball is hit and we field it, I’m confident we’re going to make the plays. Just a bonus for our pitching.”
Conversely, Notre Dame dialed up 11 hits off Johnston —as Sparks started the second with a leadoff double, and went to third on a passed ball when Katie Strickland drew a one-out walk.
Maddie Entler then, with two outs and hitting in the nine-hole slot, conked a double to score Sparks and Strickland for the 2-2 tie.
In the third, Kyndall Ford and Libby Kelly got to Johnston with leadoff back-to-back singles, then Sparks reached on Peebles’ only error — as Ford and Kelly crossed the plate on the play.
And once again, the Titans torched the Indians with another extra-base hit with two outs —this time Strickland landing a triple which scored Sparks, making it 5-2.
Notre Dame dropped two more runs on in the fourth —when Entler singled and Bree Hicks doubled her home, and Annie Dettwiller bunted for a single, with Ford finishing the scoring off with an RBI-single to bring home Hicks.
Hicks had an opening-inning leadoff single, and Dettwiller delivered a two-out sixth-stanza safety, for the Titans’ two other baserunners.
But the Notre Dame damage, at 7-2 and with Sparks cruising along, turned out to be done.
This too, as Coach Ford said, all occurred after the Titans had not played for an entire week —the most recent game being their sectional championship triumph over Trimble.
“I’ve said this from day one, but we have to let our pitchers work. We were off for a week and a little rusty and flat coming out, but to come back from being down 2-0 and scoring the last seven, that just shows the kind of fight this team has,” he said. “If we keep it simple, put the ball in play, run the bases right, make them field the ball and get some hits with runners on, that all accumulates runs.”
And, importantly, it amounts victories.
Notre Dame is set to return to Rio Grande on Saturday morning —for the Division IV district title tilt with fifth-seeded Manchester.
The Greyhounds, like the Indians, are members of the Southern Hills Athletic Conference —and defeated the Titans’ Southern Ohio Conference Division I competitor Symmes Valley 3-1 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
First pitch, at the University of Rio Grande softball complex, is set for 11 a.m.
The Titans are indeed aiming for another district championship, and this time, that nemesis named Peebles is no longer in their path.
“To be honest, having Peebles out of the way now is a huge relief for us,” said Ford. “Just proud of the way we played today, keeping it simple with Gwen doing her job, her defense doing its job and the offense doing its job. Proud of the entire team effort.”
* * *
Peebles 02o 000 0 — 2 3 1
Notre Dame 023 200 X —7 11 0
PHS: Lanie Johnston 6IP, 7R, 4ER, 11H, 1BB, 0HB, 0WP, 4K, 30BF
NDHS: Gwen Sparks 7IP, 2R, 1ER, 3H, 2BB, 0HB, 0WP, 14K, 26BF
W — Gwen Sparks; L —Lanie Johnston
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved