Kevin Colley, Staff Writer
PORTSMOUTH — Over the past 41 years, there have been many legendary programs that have made a statewide impact in Scioto County.
You have Wheelersburg’s football, baseball, and softball programs. There’s Portsmouth boys basketball program. You could point at West’s softball program. And there’s South Webster’s boys basketball program.
Clay’s softball program, however, rivals all of those programs in terms of regular season and postseason success on a year-by-year basis.
Sitting on 799 wins prior to Wednesday evening’s away bout against Western, the Panthers reached the 800-win plateau in the most Clay way possible — blitzing Western by an 18-0 final where Preslee Lutz threw a no-hitter.
The win makes Clay the fourth OHSAA softball program to reach 800 wins.
So, over time, how has it been done? Well, it’s quite simple: through hard work and a simply special blend of talent that has come through the program — including the likes of third baseman Shaelyn Vassar and Elisa Collins, who has starred in right field for the Panthers.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Collins said. “It says a lot about, not just our current team, but our softball program as a whole. Being part of such a phenomenal team is amazing. It’s easy to win that many games when you’re playing alongside your best friends. The 800-win milestone is a huge accomplishment for the Clay softball program. This win will be the boost our team needs to drive us to our goal of winning state. For most of us, it’s our last chance. My teammates and I have always pushed each other to be better than we were yesterday, and I think that is where our success comes from.”
Vassar echoed those sentiments and gave a quick glimpse of what to look for this spring. the rest
“It means so much to me to be on a team that has accomplished the 800th career win in program history for the school,” Vassar said. “To be able to experience this huge milestone for our program is so rewarding. The past four years have been filled with hard work, dedication, and persistence. I am convinced there isn’t another team out there that has as much heart as we do. We truly give 110 percent in all of our efforts. I would not be the person or athlete I am today without my amazing coaches and teammates. We aren’t finished yet, though. We have many other goals to achieve and milestones to reach. This is only the start of a great last chapter in my high school softball career.”
Good as Gold
Clay’s softball program wasted no time setting a rare standard under the leadership of legendary head coach Carol Vice and her husband Clay — who set the standard for how the Panthers play the game to this very day.
Carol, who passed away in July 2017, and Clay, who’s still a Scioto County resident to this day, exemplified the hard work the program took on with legendary multi-sport athlete and current Wheelersburg head coach Teresa Ruby referring to Clay’s presence as “Clay-o-Clock.”
Their strategy as a couple, obviously, worked out pretty well.
In the first year of the program, Clay went 12-1 and advanced to the OHSAA State Final Four, and by the end of the program’s sixth season, the Panthers had added on 19-1, 29-0, 26-0, 26-2, and 41-1 seasons — a total record of 153-5 — with state championships in 1980, 1981 and 1983.
While those first six years were the Golden Era of Clay softball, the Panthers’ success and tradition has only grown since that time. After winning district championships in each of her 11 seasons from 1978 to 1988 and winning eight regional championships during that same timespan, Vice, who was 261-20 during her career, gave way to Steve Hempill and, later, Ruby, with the pair combining to win eight consecutive sectional and district championships over the next eight years.
By the end of the 1996 season, Clay had won 18 consecutive district championships and had amassed a record of 436-44 in its first 18 seasons of existence.
While Clay went through a minor lull in its program history, especially by most program standards, from 1998 to 2004, Ruby, after a one-year hiatus from the head coaching post in 2004, returned in 2005 and led the Panthers to a Division IV OHSAA State Final Four appearance in 2007.
Then, the present-day version of Carol and Clay Vice took over beginning in 2011 to form the program in the manner that it currently is today.
With Jason Gearheart in the head coaching position and his wife, Cindy, assisting him, the Panthers, without a doubt, have the stability of old.
The Gearhearts aren’t vocal, but their work ethic to better the program is undeniable and has allowed Clay to go 165-51 in Jason’s first seven seasons.
Over the last three years, the Panthers own a strong 77-13 overall record, three SOC I Championships and two straight district titles.
Included in that stretch? A 42-game winning streak inside the SOC I lines from April 29, 2015 to April 25, 2018.
“They’re the perfect balance of coaches,” Collins said. “Jason is the one that pushes us to be the best we can be, and Cindy is the one cheering for us along the way. Our teams have always had an abundance of talent, and they have always done their best of putting the talent where it belongs in order for us to win.”
“Jason and Cindy have been the key to our success in the program,” Vassar said. “They have spent a great deal of time with us in order to make us the best players possible. They set high expectations for the team, pushing us every single day to be better than we were yesterday. They genuinely want the best for us, and most importantly, they have believed in each one of us since day one. With Jason and Cindy, the Clay softball program has flourished in tremendous ways.”
The talent inside the program is second to none.
As the team’s catcher, Cassidy Wells has flourished as an effective two-way player who can block the plate, call an excellent game, and serve as a strong middle-of-the-order hitter all in one.
There’s the effective batting lineup, which includes a fair share of speedsters [Vassar, Lila Brown, Ryanna Bobst], slap hitters [Brown and Bobst], and all-around hitters who can hit for both contact and power [Vassar, Megan Bazler, and Jensen Warnock].
Add in the dependable efforts of Collins, Kat Cochran, MeKenzie Loper, and Shaley Munion, the pitching duo of Hannah Oliver and Preslee Lutz, and additional talented pieces, including Abby Ware, Jacy Gearheart, and many more, the program from top to bottom, is as good as it’s been since that state semifinal run back in 2007 — and possibly even further back than that.
Defensively, the entire field works in unison that’s matched by very few.
“Most people get disappointed when they’re put in the outfield, but that isn’t the case on our team,” Collins said. “Our outfield is a crucial place. With excellent pitching, the ball isn’t hit hard very often. But when it is, the ball comes back just as fast as it was thrown. Our outfield does a great job handling every ball that comes our way. The current outfield is special because we’re all best friends. Jensen, Ryanna, and I have created a bond to where we know that even if we miss a ball, the other will be right behind us to help.”
“Anytime a ball is hit to our infield, I have no doubt that an out will be made,” Vassar said. “With our defense, we are tough for any opponent. Playing with these great infielders has pushed me every day to give it my all. We all feed off each other’s energy. If one of us makes a mistake, the others are always there to pick us up. I can always count on them to make a play in clutch situations. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
With a tight unit all across the board and all the pieces in place to make a state championship run, that’s exactly what the Panthers’ softball program has in mind.
Nothing less than competing at that level or stage, no matter the win streak, will suffice.
“It is a huge accomplishment [to win 42 consecutive SOC I games before the loss to Notre Dame],” Collins said. “We work so hard, and to be recognized for it made us work even harder. Honestly, none of us knew we were on a 40-plus game win streak. We go into each game with the same mindset. We show up, we each do our jobs, and we leave. When everyone has that mindset, the odds will go in your favor. Making it to regionals is huge for a small school like ours. We hope to get over our block this year and make it past regionals.”
“There are no words to describe being a part of the SOC I win streak and a part of the back-to-back regional appearances,” Vassar said. “It is so rewarding to say that I have been able to experience these goals in my high school career. We have worked so hard to be where we are and to accomplish what we have. It’s so great to know that all of our hard work has paid off. We believe that we can only get better from here.”