After surviving close calls right and left, the Elmira Notre Dame softball team may have wondered if divine intervention was on its side.
You wouldn’t have any trouble convincing Taylor Drake on that point.
When she hit a fly ball to center field in the first extra inning of the state championship game, Drake wasn’t sure it had enough oomph to leave the ballpark.
"I said a Hail Mary in my head, just praying that nobody would catch it," she recalled.
The senior center fielder knew her prayer had been answered when she rounded second base and saw her family and other ND supporters cheering wildly. Her two-run homer was the only scoring for either side all day — and it provided her Crusaders with a perfect finish to a perfect season.
Notre Dame scored a dramatic 2-0 win over Haldane in the state Class C final played June 11 at the Adirondack Sports Complex in Queensbury. The Crusaders had advanced to the final with a 6-5 comeback victory earlier that day over Greenwich of Section 2. ND not only won the first softball title in school history, but did it in extremely rare fashion: with an unblemished 26-0 record.
In the title game against Haldane of Section 1, Notre Dame battled to a 0-0 tie after seven innings of regulation thanks to the arm of pitching star Olivia May. It also was May who, in the top of the eighth, smacked a leadoff double and eventually advanced to third base in setting the stage for Drake’s heroics.
"There were two outs and I knew I had to get Olivia in somehow," Drake recalled. She got May in, as well as herself, by popping an offering from Haldane pitcher Chelsea Lisikatos over the fence. Upon being greeted by teammates at home plate, "I got pummeled," Drake remarked.
The Blue Devils threatened in the bottom of the eighth, putting runners on first and second bases with one out, but a strikeout and force play ended the game and gave ND its storybook ending. May finished with a four-hitter and Alivia Clark provided strong defense by making two diving catches in right field.
In the state semifinal against Greenwich a few hours earlier, ND entered the seventh inning trailing 5-4 after having once led 3-0. But the Crusaders parlayed four walks and a fielder’s choice into two runs and May then set the Witches down one-two-three in the bottom of the inning.
Notre Dame had reached the state Final Four with a 6-0 victory over South Lewis of Section 3 on June 7 in Class C quarterfinal play. May threw a seven-hitter, and the ND offense was led by Rebecca Saggiomo and Sydney Youmans, who each drove in two runs.
Three days before that, the top-seeded Crusaders earned the Section 4 Class C crown by winning 2-0 over third-seeded Tioga thanks to a familiar story line: The winning runs came in the fifth inning when Drake smacked a two-run homer, scoring May ahead of her. ND had advanced to the sectional final by winning 9-0 over Bainbridge-Guilford in quarterfinal play on June 1 and the same 9-0 score over Thomas A. Edison in a semifinal contest on June 3.
In addition to pitching two shutouts in the state tournament, May threw two-hit shutouts in all three of her sectional games. The rubber-armed sophomore shut out 16 opponents overall this season, pitching all but three innings of ND’s 26 games — including 15 innings of work in the final two state games on June 11.
Drake, in addition to her game-deciding home runs in the sectional and state finals, had a grand slam in Notre Dame’s 6-1 victory over Whitney Point in the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School championship game on May 18.
"Something must be changing inside me that I can pull out something clutch like this," she said.
Whatever she’s pulling out, it seems also to pervade the rest of the team based on the Crusaders’ many down-to-the wire victories. Steve Weber, the Crusaders’ head coach, said he told his players before the season that they were talented enough to set a state championship as their goal. But could anybody possibly have fathomed going undefeated as well?
"I honestly don’t think so; 26-0 is just unbelievable. Maybe at least one game you’d think we would have lost," Drake said.
A three-game stretch during the regular season reveals just how many close shaves occurred: Notre Dame was extended to 10 innings by Newark Valley before winning 3-2 on May 6; then came a 4-3 victory over Tioga on May 9 and a 4-2 decision over Edison on May 11. Weber said those narrow finishes may well have set the tone for ND’s heroics in the nail-biting state semifinal and final contests.
"We played in a pretty tough league this year, so we were able to have a lot of those close games. In three or four of them, we had to come from behind in the sixth or seventh inning to win," said Weber, who is enjoying his second career state championship: He also coached ND girls’ soccer to the state crown in the fall of 2003.
Drake attributed all of those wins to her squad’s relentless quest to be crowned as state champs.
"This team has the most heart out of any team I’ve ever played on. We just never give up," she commented.