MURFREESBORO — Unicoi County’s state championship dreams took a major hit in the form of a late-game meltdown.
Leading by one run through 5½ innings, the Lady Blue Devils made seven fielding mistakes in the final three innings — four errors and three infield misplays — and lost 2-1 in eight innings to Goodpasture Christian in the winners’ bracket semifinals of the Class AA state softball tournament on Wednesday.
“We had every opportunity to win that game,” said Unicoi head coach Grady Lingerfelt. “The game shouldn’t have gone into extra innings. We didn’t get hits at the right time.”
Unicoi (36-6) moved into today’s losers’ bracket quarterfinal contest against East Hamilton, which defeated Greenbrier 2-0 on Wednesday. Game time is scheduled for approximately 1 p.m. (EDT).
If the Lady Blue Devils defeat East Hamilton, they would play again at 5 p.m.
Nine-time state champion Goodpasture (23-8) won its second straight extra-inning game and will play Corryton Gibbs or Chester County in tonight’s winners’ bracket final.
With Unicoi leading 1-0 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, Goodpasture had a runner on third base with two outs. Madelyn Dycus hit a routine grounder to shortstop, but Jessica Presser didn’t field it cleanly. Presser still had time to get the runner at first base, but her throw was wide and pulled Taylor Wright off the bag. That allowed the tying run to score.
“We just misplayed a ball,” said Lingerfelt. “The ground is a little rough there. (Presser) is a good athlete, and she makes that play most of the time.”
In the top of the seventh inning, Wright had a two-out double. However, Goodpasture pitcher Mimi Cartwright struck out Ashley Starnes for the fourth straight time.
A pair of errors in the bottom of the seventh looked like they would doom Unicoi, but a defensive gem saved the day. After an error put a runner on first, Starnes threw wildly on a pickoff attempt and the runner moved to second base.
After time had been called, Lingerfelt questioned Starnes about the pickoff attempt. Starnes responded by throwing her catcher’s mitt back over her head against the backstop. It looked like the Lady Blue Devils were coming apart at the seams.
Cariona Hassell followed with a sharp single to center field, and the runner tried to score from second. However, Chelsey Gardner threw a picture-perfect strike right to Starnes, who made the bang-bang tag at the plate for the out.
Starnes had earlier made a brilliant throw to pick a runner off third base with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Unicoi went quietly in the eighth, but the weight of leaving 10 runners on base during the previous seven innings seemed like it eventually cost the team.
Then Unicoi opened the bottom of the eighth with another defensive misplay. Wright fielded Cartwright’s grounder to first base, but pitcher Tiffany Laughren didn’t cover the bag. Second baseman Grayson Goddard tried to get there, but Cartwright was safe as the throw got away.
“The pitcher has to cover the base on that,” said Lingerfelt.
Goodpasture sacrificed Cartwright to second, but Unicoi didn’t have anybody covering third base. Cartwright raced to third and got there about the same time as Brooke Strother, who took the throw from Wright. The umpire ruled Strother’s tag was just a bit late.
Kaylin Littlejohn then put down a squeeze bunt that was a little too hard. Wright fielded the ball, but was unable get it home ahead of the sliding Cartwright.
“We should have been in closer,” said Lingerfelt. “I was hollering. If they hit it past us, they win anyway.”
It was a tough loss for Laughren, who pitched well enough to win. She allowed seven hits and two runs, both unearned. She didn’t walk a batter and struck out six.
Laughren also drove in Unicoi’s lone run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning.
Cartwright allowed five hits and walked four. She struck out 11. She was also 3 for 3 at the plate with both runs.
“She has started since she was in the eighth grade,” said Goodpasture head coach Lee Phillips. “I don’t know that I’ve had a player who competes in every part of the game like she does.”
Lingerfelt said his team needs to bounce back.
“We just need to relax and play ball,” he said. “We can play with anybody down here on a given day, if we play our game. That’s what I think.”
Notes: Unicoi’s all-time state tournament record is 18-18. …
The Lady Blue Devils didn’t hit a homer, leaving them with 59 on the season. That ties them for second place on the all-time national list with Louisiana’s St. Amant. …
Laughren remains at 22 homers, tied for fourth place on the all-time national list.