Next stop: Murfreesboro.
University High defeated Knoxville Grace Christian 7-2 in Friday’s Sectional 1-A softball game at ETSU’s Betty Basler Field to advance to the TSSAA state tournament for the second time in three years, and the fourth time in the last eight years.
In their post-game celebration, the Lady Bucs (31-11) posed for pictures in front of the scoreboard with their arms pointed in a Southwest direction towards Murfreesboro, site of the state championship tournament.
Pitcher Haley Faulkner led the way as she has for University High most of the season. She gave up just two hits and one earned run to improve to 24-7.
“She’s getting better every game,” UH head coach Keith Jeffers said. “She’s hitting her spots and she works. She went to her pitching coach last night just to work on hitting her spots today.”
At the plate, Faulkner came up with the hit to break the game open, a two-run triple in the third inning. Followed by Taylor Treadway’s RBI single, the Lady Bucs then held a 5-1 lead.
“I was so nervous before the game,” Faulkner said. “When w e scored five runs, it gave me less pressure on the mound. I think it helped as well as having the game on our home field. It gave us a big advantage.”
Apparently so, as the Lady Rams (23-15) committed an uncharacteristic seven errors, playing on a collegiate field. It was tough for Grace head coach Dewayne Hunt to watch after seeing the progress his team has made.
The program won just four games in its first six years, and the Rams finished 10-18 last season, Hunt’s first as head coach. He particularly hated the way the season ended for seniors — Keri Powell, Chesney Williams and Emilee Suter.
“These seniors used to get beat 30-something to nothing,” Hunt said. “They’ve never been in this position, a game away from the state. They were 10-18 last year and what an improvement. They won their district, made it to the regional final and made it to the sub-state. They’ve come a long way.”
For this season, the Lady Bucs will go even further.
First baseman Mollee Cohee and Faulkner scored runs for UH in the second inning and again in the third. Belle Bright also scored two runs, and ended 2-for-4 at the plate.
Although a freshman, Cohee took advantage of the Rams’ miscues in the field, getting on base three times due to errors, and advancing to at least third base every time.
“When the big opportunities come, you just have to do your best,” Cohee said. “A lot of the runs we had were on errors, but we had to make smart plays on the bases.”
Grace took an early 1-0 lead, when Suter bunted to score Kate Black in the top of the second. The Lady Rams’ scored again in the sixth inning, off a RBI double by Black to score Jessica Webb.
In the bottom of the sixth, Tanner Horton took advantage of three errors to score University High’s and the game’s final run.
While it wasn’t Grace’s best showing defensively, the Lady Bucs’ base running added to their angst. They ended up with seven runs off six hits as Bright was the only batter to have multiple hits.
“Base running was good tonight,” Jeffers said. “Even though we didn’t score in the first inning, I was really pleased we came out and put the bat on the ball. If you don’t put it in the field, you’re not going to score. We put in play, and if you do that, you never know what’s going to happen after that.”
The state tournament starts Tuesday, and Jeffers knows the level of competition will increase. Between now and then, he wants to shore up his own team’s defense after UH committed three errors on Friday.
“We’ve got to get better,” he said. “But, you never know what’s going to happen. That’s why you play the game.”