STEUBENVILLE - Steubenville Catholic Central's Taylor Clark was having a season to remember over her team's first 11 games.
The senior catcher was batting .550 with 27 RBIs, including a three home run, 13-RBI effort in a doubleheader against Athens and an 11th game that saw her hit a home run, a single, and drive in four runs against Akron Coventry during a tournament in Akron.
That all appeared to come to an end, when during the Crusaders next tournament game against Ontario, Clark suffered what for most would be a season-ending injury in the form of a torn ACL.
"We were at the Akron Tournament and Friday night the game's got canceled because of rain," said Clark. "Saturday we came out to play at Firestone Stadium and the field was real mucky. The ground was still wet during the top of the first, and I hit a double. On my way to second my left ankle got caught.
"I wasn't going to slide so I tried to catch myself with my right leg, I heard a pop, and I went down. At first my ankle hurt more, but once I got home my knee started to hurt. It was flashbacks of eighth grade when I hurt my knee."
While most would understandably become depressed and lament what could have been, the resilient Clark knew that moment wasn't her final one as a Crusader softball player.
"I was like 'oh my God, my season can not be over,' but I knew it wasn't going to be over," said Clark. "I just knew I would do whatever I could to get back to play with my team again.
"That (decision to come back) was immediate. I knew I wasn't going to sit on the bench and watch my team. At first I was contemplating if I was going to get surgery because I plan on trying to walk on at Florida State University.
"I knew that surgery was going to have to wait a little; I was going to finish out the season, and do my best so I can catch again. I love my teammates. I'm close to all of them. I just knew I needed to help them and play with them again."
Added Central head coach Jim DiCarlo, "First of all, when she got hurt I thought, 'not Taylor, she deserves a better fate'. I was worried about her because she was having such a phenomenal season at the time.
"I don't know I've ever had a player be in the zone like she was at the time she got hurt so I felt so bad for her. I told her on the phone call that night, 'I'm not going to battle without you,' and she agreed she was going to come back."
Senior teammates Sammi Giannamore and Tori Knight believe Clark's return provides the team with a boost that goes beyond just on-field production.
"I was scared (when she was hurt)," said Giannamore.
"I guess because I didn't want her to be out. She had the best batting average and is just a leader to our team.
"It motivated our team a lot when she was able to come back. She's a good friend and a good teammate."
Added Knight, "I felt like we'd be fine because we'd find a way to win, but knowing that she's back and able to play is a lot more comforting than if she wasn't able to be behind the plate.
"She's our leader. She's always confident, and always confident in everyone else."
After a two-game layoff Clark returned to the Central batting order in the designated hitter slot with some questions as to how she'd perform with the injury. Those questions were never in Clark's mind.
"Personally I didn't think there was (a chance I couldn't perform like before the injury) because I am a very determined, self-confident person," said Clark, who was voted the OVAC Class 2A Player of the Year. "I knew my parents and coaches were nervous, but I just try to ignore the pain and play my best."
DiCarlo said of Clark's return to the lineup, "She went to the physical therapist, and we said, 'OK, we'll work you in slowly, we'll let you DH, and then we'll run for you'.
"She doesn't want to come off the base when she gets on. There's games where she's come off and had to come out of the game because she's been pinch run for twice, but she's always encouraging and getting on her teammates to do better."
While Clark continued to hit the ball well upon her return there was still something missing.
"The game's not the same unless you are back where you belong," said Clark. "I belong behind the plate."
So DiCarlo began the effort to put his four-year starter back in her natural spot at catcher.
"Later on, my goal was for her to catch because she told me she had a way she could, so we decided we'd wait until sectionals for her to catch full time, and we worked her in," said DiCarlo. "I worked her in a lot of times when there was two outs, right before she was going to bat, so that if she got on base I could courtesy run for her. Like in the Big Red game Maddy Gulan caught two outs in the first inning, and Taylor came in for the last out so when she batted she could get run for without being out of the game.
"I told her 'if you're good to go you have to tell me because your health is most important to me, no matter what happens'. I also talked it over with her mom and dad. We wanted her to go against Martins Ferry (in the sectional finals) so we slowly worked her in, caught her against Martins Ferry and caught her against St. Clairsville (in the district finals)."
Having Clark back at catcher provides a boost to the Crusaders because it affects the chemistry of the entire team.
"Let me say this. Ashlynne Daley and Maddy Gulan (who filled in for Clark behind the plate) are two really nice high school catchers so we're really fortunate to have them there," said DiCarlo. "Fran Capaldi has done a really nice job out in left field, which is Maddy's position.
"Actually, when Taylor got hurt our best chemistry was to put Maddy behind the plate, but I couldn't because she had a pulled quad so I had to move Ashlynne, our third baseman, behind the plate, but Taylor is our backup third baseman. Then we really had to move some kids because Sammi Giannamore had to come in (from right field) and play third. I really give her kudos because she did well, but she hadn't played third base since seventh grade so she had to come in cold turkey in the Bishop Donahue and John Marshall games.
"I think Maddy, with a pulled quad, didn't hit as well because she had to catch. Maddy is normally a better hitter when she's in left field. Just having Taylor in uniform was the first thing, then having her hit was the second thing, and then having her almost all the way back is an unbelievable feeling because it's her senior year, she's been a four-year starter back there, and she knows a lot of the little things I want."
The other way having Clark back behind the plate is in the influence she has over freshman pitcher Alex McComb.
"She's also a vocal leader, which helps keep Alex calm and under control so, in that regard, I think it helped," said DiCarlo.
Added McComb of Clark's return, "It encouraged me that if she can go through that and come back and catch then anything I go through I have to be just as tough as she was.
" I just think it gave our team confidence. If she can come back with a torn ACL we can go out and win, and play as hard as we could against anybody."
Knight continued about Clark returning to catch, "It gave us a big boost knowing she was back behind the plate. Like I said, we felt like we'd find a way to win if she wasn't there, it's just easier when she's playing in some way."
Clark's return behind the plate also marked one of her most clutch moments when, while trailing 5-4 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, she connected for a single that sent home two runs to give the Crusaders the sectional crown over the Purple Riders.
"Coach D sat us all down and said, 'Taylor's going to come back, get some key hits, and win some games for us'," said Clark. "I knew when I was up to bat. I thought, 'this is it, this is my time, and I'm going to win the game for us'."
When the season ends Clark, who for the season is hitting .476 with five home runs and 42 RBIs, will have surgery and then make a push to fulfill her dream of playing with the Seminoles.
"I have surgery June 14, and my therapist said within eight to 12 weeks I'll be perfectly fine," said Clark. "I just have to train for it, and I can't wait to be down there."
Stated DiCarlo of Clark's amazing season, "It isn't just Taylor Clark. It's a special thing. It's a different thing for Taylor Clark because she's gone through adversity, but our kids are so close to each other, and care about each other, and Taylor Clark could never do these things without her teammates.
"It's kind of neat because Taylor has had three good years with us, and this year she's had a great year, and she's done it on a leg-and-a-half. There's not too many kids that are as tough as her, and if we had a courage award it would have to go to Taylor Clark."
Before Clark can really look back and appreciate the year she's had, the Crusaders, who won the district title, 8-2, over St. Clairsville in a game Clark had two RBIs, have some unfinished business in the form of a 5 p.m. regional semifinal match up with Bloom-Carroll at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Lancaster High School.
"I'm definitely not content with just being here," said Clark. "I have a feeling we're going to go to states. I'm going to lead my team on."