RIO GRANDE — Simply put, in the last week to 10 days of May, it’s all about three letters — and definitely not four — for ND.
“All we are looking for is a three-letter word: WIN. We don’t care if it’s 1-0. The three-letter word is better than the four-letter word (LOSS),” said Notre Dame softball head coach Shad Ford.
And, win the now 18-1 and top-seeded Titans indeed did on Saturday, amid the sweltering heat at the University of Rio Grande softball complex —despite not always appearing exquisite, and even leaving eight baserunners aboard.
But, with Notre Dame sophomore pitcher Gwen Sparks bringing the heat, all it takes for the Titans sometimes is a single solitary point —as Notre Dame scored single runs in four of its six at-bats, en route to a 7-0 shutout of the Manchester Greyhounds in a steambaked Division IV district championship tilt.
Notre Dame dialed up for single runs in each of the opening three innings, and then made it 7-0 with another counter in the sixth.
Finally, for the seventh stanza, and for the second consecutive district tournament bout, Sparks ended the game with her 14th strikeout —after Annie Dettwiller dazzled with another fantastic catch at second base.
Dettwiller’s difficult over-the-shoulder grab for the second out against Peebles in that 9-1 semifinal victory was only outdone on Saturday —when she dove to her right and snagged a screaming liner off the bat of Jaylise Applegate.
Her infield teammates, including Sparks, surrounded her in a premature one-out celebration —but nonetheless a well-deserved one.
“Our pitchers don’t have to strike everybody out, but it is a bonus. We made some good plays in the infield, especially in the last inning,” said Ford.
However, Sparks’ strikeouts totally control any Notre Dame game —as she struck out the Greyhound side in innings one, two and finally four.
Like she did against Peebles, Sparks fanned 14 —and only allowed two basehits, compared to three she gave up against the Indians in Tuesday’s semifinal.
Manchester’s only baserunners — aside from reaching on three Titan errors — were Emilee Applegate on a first-inning two-out walk, a Rylie Young leadoff single in the second, a Jenna Campbell leadoff single in the sixth, and an intentional walk to Young in the sixth.
Sparks stranded six Greyhounds, including Young at third in the second and at second in the fourth —and with runners on the corners in the sixth.
“Gwen showed good command today. It was hot and temperatures up in the 90s, which is something we really haven’t seen all year. And Madison Brown back there catching, she has shown a lot of senior leadership this year,” said Ford. “She has played big for us and has done a great job for us all season.”
As it turned out, the only run the Titans needed was within their first two at-bats —as Dettwiller led off with a triple to right centerfield, and scored on a Bree Hicks RBI-groundout.
“The first inning was what we want to do. Get on base, double or triple or however we can move our leadoff runner to third, get a ground ball to where we can score. That’s what we tell them,” revealed Ford.
Notre Dame delivered eight hits all told, as Sparks helped herself with an RBI-double in the third —which scored Kyndall Ford, who singled to lead off.
In the second, Sparks drew a leadoff walk, as courtesy runner and senior Mia McPheters moved to second on a sacrifice bunt —before scoring on an RBI-single by Kaylynn Darden.
In the sixth, Libby Kelly clubbed a double to right, stole third base, and scored on an unsuccessful fielder’s choice off the bat of Katie Strickland.
The Titans put the ball in play off Greyhound pitchers Emilee Applegate and Young, as Applegate pitched into the third before Young relieved her in the circle.
Notre Dame sent seven batters to the plate in the fifth frame —combining a Strickland single, a Darden sac bunt, wild pitches and passed balls, and back-to-back walks issued by Young.
There was also a Greyhound error in the inning.
So Notre Dame did score runs, although it sure seemed like they could have had many more.
“It was kind of a sloppy game where we had runners on base and we didn’t execute to get that ground ball or bunt down and get more runners in, but if we can score five or six runs, or today seven, with the pitching we have, it’s a bonus,” said Ford.
But, all it took on Saturday for the Titans was one run —for the win.
“Madison Brown is our only four-year senior, and this district championship gives these girls which are freshmen and sophomores that confidence to go to the regionals. When you say regionals, it’s a big deal here at Notre Dame. A lot of teams are already home, but we’re still playing,” said Ford. “Just proud of the overall team effort today.”
Notre Dame captured its third consecutive Division IV district championship, and returns to the Region 15 tournament at Pickerington Central High School —where the program tries to advance to the D-IV Elite Eight.
The Titans’ regional semifinal is set for Wednesday at the Pickerington Central quad —against the Central District champion Danville at 2 p.m.
For Notre Dame to march on to Saturday’s regional championship, all that has to happen is that coveted three-letter word.
Which, despite their youth, the Titans — spearheaded by seniors McPheters and Brown —are indeed quite capable of.
“There are some things we need to clean up going forward because every game will get harder, because everybody at this point now is really good,” said Ford. “We just have to do our thing, which is to play good defense and pitch well with Gwen (Sparks) and Kyndall (Ford). With Gwen pitching, our defense being solid and we have some speed on the bases, to be as young as we are, we’re dangerous.”
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