MILLIGAN COLLEGE — Elizabethton caught fire at midseason, and hasn't slowed down yet.
The Cyclones held off Unicoi County 5-3 on Thursday at Anglin Field to win the District 1-AA baseball championship.
It was the first district title since the Cyclones won their second straight in 2007. The three recent titles are the only ones Elizabethton owns perhaps as far back as the 1950s.
“Obviously this is a big part of the season, and to do it against a great team like Unicoi County makes it nicer and sweeter,” said Cyclones' head coach Joe Nix. “All that work we did early was to keep playing in May.”
Elizabethton improved to 25-10 on the season with its 19th win its last 21 games. The Cyclones earned the right to play host for Monday's regional semifinal against District 2-AA runner-up South Greene.
Unicoi County fell to 23-7 and will travel Monday to play District 2 champion Greeneville.
With the Blue Devils coming out of the losers' bracket and needing two wins to steal the title, Elizabethton didn't waste time in taking control. The Cyclones scored three runs in the top of the first inning with Anthony Ward's two-run single getting things started.
“We talked about how it was imperative to start hot in the first inning,” said Nix. “When you play Unicoi there is added pressure because you know their tradition.”
The Blue Devils were ready for the challenge, scoring two times in the third inning on back-to-back doubles from Ryan Lingerfelt and Austin Green. It was the third time in their last four at-bats the duo had pulled off the double-double.
However, the Cyclones had an answer. Quincy Jackson's one-out single was followed by Chris Lanthorn's RBI double to make it 4-2 in the top of the fourth inning.
Then in the fifth inning, the Cyclones got a gift when an infield popup was dropped and a run scored from third base.
Unicoi made threats in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, but each time Elizabethton starter Dylan Richardson stopped the rally.
“I felt great even toward the end of the game,” said Richardson, a sophomore left-hander who allowed 10 hits but only three runs, two earned, in the complete-game performance. “I was fine mentally throughout the game, but I left pitches up too much.”
Hunter Burnett doubled with one out in the sixth inning to put runners on second and third, but Eric Carter turned Austin Garrabrant's grounder into a 6-2 force at the plate. Richardson, who improved to 8-1 on the season, then got out of the jam with a popup.
In the seventh inning, Jonathan Davis' single was followed by an error to put runners on the corners with nobody out. However, Carter started a 6-4-3 double play. Taylor LaFever then doubled, but Richardson got a strikeout to end the game.
“We felt like we could do this,” said Richardson. “We felt pretty good coming into the tournament.”
Lanthorn finished with three hits to lead the Cyclones at the plate.
Austin Smith, who led the Cyclones in the tournament with five RBIs and also had a complete game on the mound, was selected as the most valuable player.
Nix credited his coaching staff with helping capture the district title.
“The throwing program Coach (Nathan) Fritz put them through made sure they had their legs under them, especially late in the year,” said Nix. “And Coach (Johnny) Burleson and (Joe) Diaz, any time the kids wanted extra ground balls or some extra flips in the batting cage, they were huge making the kids want to be better.”
Unicoi got three hits from Austin Green, who was 8 of 14 at the plate for the tournament. LaFever added two hits in Thursday's game.
Blue Devils' head coach Charlie Baxter said his team gave plenty of effort.
“I was real pleased with them, and I thought they played hard,” said Baxter. “Of course we're disappointed to lose, but Monday is important. We've got to look to Monday and play our best.
“We've got to put this behind us. Success motivates you, but so does defeat if you take it the right way.”