Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
Southern Ohio Sports Authority is presented by OhioHealth.
ROSEMONT — Since last season’s heartbreaking loss to Peebles in a Division IV regional semifinal, Notre Dame has had one thing on its mind.
The Titans are focused on getting back to that level and exorcising those demons.
“We have a goal. It’s June 2, which is the state’s Final Four date,” Notre Dame coach Shad Ford said. “That’s what we’ve preached from day one. Of course, we have to see what our draw is and who we’ll play. But I think [the state tournament] is a realistic goal for this team, even with being as young as it is.”
On Thursday, Ford’s Titans (14-1, 11-0 SOC I) took the first step in accomplishing their ultimate goal.
Behind a pitching gem from Gwen Sparks and an offensive outburst from both Libby Kelly and Bree Hicks, Notre Dame handed Clay a 10-1 loss to clinch the program’s third straight conference title.
“I told the girls before we came out that there was only six SOC softball championships at Notre Dame. I told them that this was a big step, especially while starting three freshmen and four sophomores, to have that feeling of winning something,” Ford said. “But this is just the first step. Now it goes to sectional, district and regional [championships]. We want a seat at the table at the state tournament.”
Sparks was magnificent on Thursday, allowing a single run on three hits and whiffing 13 hitters.
But that’s just another day in the life of the right-handed flamethrower.
“Gwen can spin it. She can just dominate a game,” Ford said. “Tonight, she kept [Clay] off-balance. Her changeup was working and when she has that working, she’s un-hittable. And kudos goes to our defense. When the ball was put in play, we made the play. Like I said, we kept it simple.”
The sophomore received plenty of run support from her offense as well, making her day a walk in the park.
Against an always formidable Preslee Lutz, the Titans’ youth-filled lineup pounded out 12 hits and forced Clay’s defense into five errors. That led to an early lead and a four-run fifth inning to blow the doors off the hinges.
“We told them that this was a big game. We wanted them to treat it as such,” Ford said. “We told the girls that we have pitchers who can dominate the game,” Ford said. “If they just keep it simple, don’t throw the ball around, put the ball in play … we just have to score four or five runs to win. But these girls are growing up before our eyes. There isn’t a lot of varsity softball experience on this team. But they’re growing up fast.”
Notre Dame got on the board first in the second inning when Katie Strickland knocked in Annie Dettwiller with an RBI groundout for a 1-0 tally. The Titans would add three more in the third when Sparks helped her own cause with an RBI before Kelly laced a two-run single into the center field grass, making it 4-0.
“We want to prove ourselves to people,” Kelly said. “We want to show people that we can go far. I just want to do [well] for my teammates. I want us to all win it. So I want to go [to the plate] and just do my job, put the ball in play and see how it goes.”
In the top of the fourth, Hicks made it a 5-0 score with her first RBI of the evening. Then, in the fifth, several defensive mistakes alongside a two-run single from Madison Brown gave Notre Dame a 9-0 cushion.
The Titans scored their final run in the top of the seventh before Clay scored once in the bottom half to produce the night’s final.
Kelly finished the day 2-for-4 with a double, two runs scored and two RBIs while Brown also went 2-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs. Maddie Entler was 3-for-4 with a run and Hicks went 3-for-5 with a triple, a run, a stolen base and an RBI.
“When I go up to hit, I just think, ‘I have to hit the ball hard.’ I don’t think about hitting it far,” Hicks said. “A base hit will do the job. That’ll get the team moving. We’re so young and we’re all together. We have each other’s backs, win or lose. We’re always here for each other.”
Clay (10-6, 7-2 SOC I) was led statistically by Lutz, who was 1-for-2 with a walk. Shea Edgington also helped out, going 1-for-3 with a run scored. Lutz took the loss in the circle, going the distance and surrendering four earned runs on 12 hits while striking out 11.
What’s on tap
While Clay looks to get back on track on Friday hosting Portsmouth, Notre Dame will wait until next week to be back in action. The Titans will wrap up their league schedule by hosting Symmes Valley on Monday.
“We want to finish the conference schedule strong,” Ford said. “We could get them [Symmes Valley] in the tournament so I’m not sure how we’re going to play it. We don’t want to overwork Gwen or [pitcher] Kyndall [Ford]. So we’ll see how it goes. We also have Waverly and Greenup next week. If we go into the tournament healthy, we feel good about what we’re doing. That’ll be the focus next week.”