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By Brian Fees
Southern Tier Sports Report
SOUTHPORT — As the ball popped up and floated toward the fence down the first-base side of the field a six-run lead had been trimmed to one, with the tying run standing at first base.

As Lexi Blitz raced toward the ball the Crusaders players knew how big the moment was.

A catch and the game was over, while if the ball dropped the Tigers got another chance to tie, or even take the lead.

Blitz raced toward the ball, and made an over-the-shoulder catch, cradling the ball against her body as she pulled it in to end the game.

For the Notre Dame first-baseman she couldn’t even describe how big the moment was.

“I don’t even know,” Blitz said. “It was insane.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Maloney knew exactly how big that moment was.

“Pretty amazing, she circles the ball, turns around and catches it over her shoulder with her chest, pretty amazing catch,” Maloney said.

As Blitz hauled in the catch pitcher Olivia Switzer threw her hands up and broke into a big smile knowing the Crusaders were headed to the sectional final.

“It was very nerve-wracking, but I knew she could do it, it was clutch,” Switzer said.

Entering the seventh inning it appeared the Crusaders were about to cruise their way into the sectional final, but the Tigers had other ideas.

A Molly Bombard single started things and Abby Foley followed with a single. After RaeAnn Feel reached on an error the bases were loaded with no outs.

MJ Thetga followed with a hard-hit double to right that scored two runs making it 6-2.

Erin Luther singled to right, cutting the deficit to 6-3 and Julia Bellis was out on a bunt attempt, but a run scored on the play.

After Switzer got a strikeout for the second out, Alissa Hine singled home Luther to cut the deficit to 6-5 and Hine stood at first as the potential tying run when Blitz made the highlight reel catch.

“They didn’t give up,” Tioga coach Stephanie Hills said. “I think that’s the biggest thing with us this season. We haven’t given up, we always have come back and stuck with it when we can.”

Hills was impressed with clutch hit after clutch hit in the seventh inning.

“Big time, they did their jobs, one at a time,” Hills said. “That’s what it took. 5-6, you can’t hang your heads about that one.”

For Notre Dame, as the Tioga bats started to come alive the Crusaders knew they had to make a play.

“I think we all realized that as soon as they got going with their bats we all decided to settle in and get it done,” Lawson Bigelow said. “And, Lexi came out and showed us how to do it.”

For Notre Dame there were definitely nervous moments, but in the end the they came out on top.

“They hung on,” Maloney said. “That’s what they did. They hung on. Bend, but don’t break.”

“It definitely made things interesting,” Switzer said. “But, I had faith in everyone that we were going to come through with the win, so I guess that’s all that matters.”

As tough as those final moments were, the Crusaders love facing good teams.

“It keeps everything interesting,” Bigelow said. “We love the competition. They gave us a run for our money, and we love it.”

As the game got tight, you could still see Switzer smiling on the mound, and everyone on the Crusaders team still played with a joy on the field.

“I feel like you have to,” Switzer said of staying upbeat. “Because, if you let yourself get down, especially if one person gets down, it brings everybody else down so you just have to keep everybody up and keep the energy up and it just goes smoother.”

Everyone on the Notre Dame roster tries to keep their teammates loose and free.

“We all try and make sure everyone is on their A game,” Blitz said.

Maloney feels that being in so many big games in their career has helped the Crusaders handle those big moments.

“They have been in a lot of high pressure situations in travel ball and here,” Maloney said. “They are sort of accustomed to it. I don’t think it bothers them very much. I think they are accustomed to high pressure situations and because of that they don’t get nervous and they don’t get down.”

Notre Dame struck first on Friday with a first-inning run. After Ava Mustico was hit by a pitch to start the bottom of the first, she stole second. Switzer singled on a bunt and that scored Mustico to quickly put Notre Dame on top.

From there it was a pitcher’s dual as both Switzer and Hine kept the game at the same score into the fifth inning.

In the bottom of the fifth inning the Crusaders bat started to come alive.

Paige Miller singled to start the inning and after Miller stole second she moved to third on a Switzer groundout.

Bigelow followed with a hard-hit single to left that scored Miller to make it 2-0. Shannon Maloney then ripped a double to make it 3-0.

After an out was recorded, Maddie Fargo singled home Maloney to make it 4-0.

“I think that fifth inning definitely was the turning point,” Hills said. “But, we could have given up, and we didn’t and we came back.

“They got some gapers on us, scored some runs, but we came back to 5-6. You can’t be mad at them, they did well.”

For the Notre Dame players there was some momentum as the bats got going in the fifth inning.

“Once one of us gets going the next one wants to keep it up and going,” Bigelow said.

Paige Harvey doubled to start the sixth inning and Mustico singled home Harvey, who had stolen third, and Miller singled, with Mustico scoring on the throw to make it 6-0, before the Tioga rally in the seventh.

For Notre Dame as things started clicking everyone chipped in.

“It was just the adrenaline and everything, we got the mojo and just kept going,” Switzer said.

Both pitchers did a good job of scattering hits in the game. Notre Dame had 14 hits in the game and Tioga had 12. But the two pitchers only allowed one walk between them, and there were only four doubles among the 26 total hits, as the pitchers limited things to singles and stranded runners.

Switzer struck out nine and allowed one walk for Notre Dame and Hine struck out two and walked none for the Tigers.

Switzer, Bigelow and Maloney all had two hits for Notre Dame. Bigelow and Maloney had RBI and Maloney scored a run, while hitting a double.

Harvey had two doubles and scored a run, while Switzer and Miller had two hits each and Fargo and Mustico had hits. Switzer and Miller each had rBI and Miller scored a run. Fargo scored a run and Mustico had an RBI and scored two runs. Meg Agan scored a run.

Foley, Thetga and Hine had two hits each for Tioga. Foley scored a run, Thetga had a double and two RBI and HIne had an RBI.

Feeko, Lutcher, Bellis, MacKenzie Williams, Austyn Vance and Bombard all had hits for Tioga.

Feeko scored a run, Luther had an RBI and a run scored, Bellis had an RBI and Bombard and Megan Vance scored runs in the game.

For Notre Dame it’s on to BAGSAI for an 11 a.m. final against Greene on Saturday.

“I am so excited, I know they are going to bring it and we are ready for it,” Switzer said.

Notre Dame’s players know that when they play well they can play with anyone.

“If we come out with our bats, stay up and don’t get down on ourselves and stay together as a team, we’ll be fine,” Bigelow said. “I am very excited, it really can show us what we can do with our bats.”

The Crusaders will face one of the best pitchers in the section in Olivia Kennedy in the final. For Switzer it’s fun to match up with a great pitcher.

“It is, especially when their name is the same as mine,” Switzer joked. “I know she has what it takes, but I know we will hit off her. I know it, I have faith in my girls.”

The Crusaders know they are facing a great team, and player, and they are excited for the challenge.

“We are excited,” Maloney said. “It’s what we have been looking forward to all year. We kind of assumed if we got to BAGSAI for the championship that was who we would be playing.

“She (Kennedy) was the best pitcher in the section last year, she was Class C (state) Player of the Year last year. She’s got the accolades to back it up. We are looking forward to it.”
IN TOP PHOTO: Notre Dame’s Lexi Blitz hauls in a highlight reel catch to end Thursday’s win over Tioga. . . PHOTOS BY BRIAN FEES

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