ERWIN — A team rewriting the softball state record book with every home run made reservations for Murfreesboro on the wings of a walk-off blast.
Brooke Strother launched a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh inning, giving Unicoi County a hard-fought 6-5 win over Union County in a Class AA sectional contest Thursday at Lady Devils Diamond.
Strother's home run increased Unicoi's state-record team total to 57. Tiffany Laughren also homered, giving her the individual state mark with her 20th of the season.
It was the second time in three years Unicoi advanced to the state tournament with a walk-off homer.
“My stomach has been in knots for two days,” said Unicoi head coach Grady Lingerfelt. “I don't think we've won one that dramatic.”
The Blue Devils improved to 35-5 and will play Tuesday during the BlueCross Spring Fling. Union's season ended with a record of 28-19.
Trailing 5-4 entering the top of the seventh inning, Union got a run thanks to three errors by the Lady Blue Devils. However, further damage was thwarted when Laughren robbed Jodi Brooks of a three-run homer. Then Cheyenne Delffs robbed Casey Bryan of an RBI single with a sliding catch in right field.
That set the stage for Strother, who came to the plate after an attempted sacrifice bunt turned into a double play. With a 3-1 count, Strother hit a blistering high line drive that easily cleared the center field fence.
“I definitely wanted to hit one out,” said Strother, who collected home run No. 3 on the season. “The pitch was just right there. It was a meat pitch. I was just praying it was going out.”
Strother said the high home run total for the Blue Devils comes from hard work.
“I think we work harder than any team,” said Strother. “We always keep pushing each other to keep winning.”
Lingerfelt said he liked Strother's contact on the homer.
“It sounded good,” he said. “It was a solid hit.”
Unicoi got off to a very good start, scoring three times in the first inning and adding another run in the second. Chelsey Gardner was a big part of those rallies, leading off with a double in the first and hitting her first home run of the season in the second inning.
Taylor Wright added an RBI groundout, and Ashley Starnes drove in a run with a fielder's choice.
Laughren's rip came in the fifth inning and broke a 4-4 tie. It ended a semi-long drought for the sophomore, who had been tied at 19 homers with former Daniel Boone standout Natalie Sheffey.
“It took a lot of pressure off of me,” said Laughren. “I've been trying to hit one for a while. I had been forcing it a little, so I'm glad to finally get it.”
Lingerfelt said Laughren's homer was a relief for the team.
“I'm so glad we got the records behind us,” said Lingerfelt.
The seventh inning was nearly a disaster for the Blue Devils. Andi Smith blooped a single just in front of a diving Gardner in center field to start the inning. Katie George then bunted, but Strother threw the ball over the head of the first baseman. Delffs collected the ball in foul territory and threw off target toward home plate.
As Unicoi catcher Ashley Starnes chased the ball down, Smith tried to score from third. However, Starnes picked it up and fired a strike to pitcher Kaylee Nicholson at the plate to nail Smith.
After a wild pitch, Bailey Mize hit a bouncing ball toward Unicoi second baseman Grayson Goddard, who couldn't keep it in front of her and Mize reached on an error with the tying run scoring from third. Kelly Cooper then singled, bringing Brooks to the plate. Brooks had already hit a two-run homer, and she hit a high fly ball to left field. Laughren went to the fence, reached up, and pulled it back in.
“As soon as she caught it, I said, 'Thank goodness,' ” said Nicholson. “And then I thanked her when she came in.”
Bryan followed with a ripped liner to right, but Delffs went down to both knees and slid into the catch.
“I don't think we ever got down, even after we made those mistakes,” said Lingerfelt. “I think God had a plan.”
The top three hitters in Unicoi's lineup — Gardner, Delffs and Laughren — combined to go 9 for 11 with five runs and three RBIs. Each player had three hits.
Nicholson got the win in relief of Laughren. She allowed four hits and two runs, one earned, in four innings of work. She walked one and struck out three.
“Kaylee got some outs when we needed them,” said Lingerfelt.
Cooper and Smith each had three hits for Union. Brooks drove in two runs with her fourth-inning homer, and finished with two hits.