MURFREESBORO — Unicoi County kept hitting home runs right to the bitter end.
Despite Brooke Strother’s dramatic two-out, two-run, game-tying homer in the top of the seventh, the Lady Blue Devils lost their second straight extra-inning heartbreaker. This one was a 10-9 decision against East Hamilton in the losers’ bracket quarterfinals of the Class AA state softball tournament Thursday at Starplex Field.
University of Tennessee signee Shaliyah Geathers, a speedster and then some, scored the winning run from third base on Maria Walshe’s suicide-squeeze bunt with one out.
It was a season-ender for Unicoi, which finished 36-7. The Lady Blue Devils’ other loss of the tournament was a 2-1 eight-inning affair with Goodpasture Christian on Wednesday.
“I don’t think you can ask for more out of anybody than they did today,” said Unicoi head coach Grady Lingerfelt of his players. “I am as proud of them as any team I’ve been around. They just battled hard.”
Facing a short turnaround after the draining win, East Hamilton didn’t have much to offer Lexington and lost 13-5 in the losers’ bracket semifinal.
Unicoi County finished off a homer-happy year with a state record of 61 — breaking the old mark by 11. It’s the second-best total in the history of high school softball in the nation. Alabama’s Pisgah High totaled 71 homers in 2011.
Tiffany Laughren homered in the game and finished with a state-record 23 for the season. That put her alone in fourth place on the all-time national list.
Laughren also set a state tournament record and tied another. She became the first player to hit three home runs in a tournament, and her two-homer game against Meigs County tied the single-game mark.
However, all the record chasing stopped when Geathers scored. She had doubled with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, and moved to third on Tori Barnes’ popup that barely reached the outfield grass for a bloop single.
Lingerfelt opted to intentionally walk Kelsey Payne to load the bases, and Walshe bunted the ball back to Laughren — who tried to scoop it to catcher Ashley Starnes for the force, but the toss was high and off the mark as Geathers slid in safely.
It appeared the Lady Hurricanes were going to run away, building a 5-0 lead Unicoi County style — with the long ball. Maggie Woods clubbed a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning, and Barnes added a solo blast in the third inning. Amber Phillips added an RBI single.
However, the Lady Blue Devils came to life in the top of the fourth. Taylor Wright got it cooking with an RBI single, and then Starnes drove in a run with an infield hit to make it 5-2. A third run scored on an error by East Hamilton.
However, the Hurricanes struck again for three runs in the bottom of the fourth. Barnes hit an RBI double, and Walshe added a two-run single to make it 8-3.
Once again, the Blue Devils battled back. Laughren hit an RBI single in the top of the fifth inning, and Wright loaded the bases with a hit. The next two batters made outs, but Strother laced a two-run single to left-center field to make it 8-6.
After East Hamilton tacked on an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth, Unicoi potentially faced its last at-bat.
However, Laughren stepped up and smoked a deep fly ball over the left field fence to make it 9-7.
After a walk and two groundouts, Strother came to the plate. She ripped a high line drive to center field that hit off the glove of Geathers and landed on the other side of the fence for a game-tying two-run homer.
“She just did what she was told,” said Lingerfelt with a laugh. “I said to her, ‘Hit this out of the park.’ She killed it.”
In the top of the eighth inning, Unicoi loaded the bases on Chelsey Gardner’s single, Cheyenne Delffs’ single, and an intentional walk to Laughren.
With Wright coming to the plate already having two hits in the game, things were looking good for Unicoi. However, Wright grounded hard to Barnes at shortstop, and the runner from third was forced at the plate.
Then Starnes smacked a hard grounder to Barnes, and she threw to third base for the final out.
“We just hit it right at them,” said Lingerfelt. “And they made the plays.”
Delffs finished with three hits while Strother had two hits and four RBIs. Laughren had two hits, two RBIs, and scored three runs.
Unicoi outhit East Hamilton, 12-11.
Geathers had three hits and scored three runs for the Hurricanes. Woods and Walshe each had two hits and three RBIs. Barnes had three hits and two RBIs.
Overall, Lingerfelt said he was pleased with the season.
“We had a good year,” he said. “I expected it to be a good year, but I didn’t know it would be this good.”
Notes: Corryton Gibbs and Goodpasture Christian will not be in the Class AA state tournament in 2014. Gibbs is moving up to Class AAA while Goodpasture slips back into Class A. …
Also moving up is East Hamilton, which will be Class AAA next season. …
The national home run record for a season is held by Pisgah’s Shelby Holley, who hit 35 in 2011. That same season, teammate Holly Currie hit 24.
Erica Martinez of Fort Madison, Iowa, knocked 24 out of the park in 1999.