MURFREESBORO — Unicoi County’s softball team missed a golden opportunity to win a state title, but there is a silver lining for the Lady Blue Devils.
After beating Meigs County in the opening round, Unicoi had Goodpasture Christian on the ropes before defensive mistakes allowed the perennial powerhouse to escape with a 2-1 eight-inning win.
If Unicoi had defeated Goodpasture, it would have had a strong chance against Chester County in the winners’ bracket final. The Blue Devils defeated Chester County 15-3 in the 2011 state tournament.
Beating Chester would have put Unicoi in the championship round, where it likely would have met Lexington. The Lady Tigers had the best team in the tournament, and certainly could have come out of the losers’ bracket and defeated Unicoi County twice — just as they did against Goodpasture in the real scenario on Friday.
However, with the Lady Blue Devils’ power-hitting lineup, beating them twice would have been tough.
And therein lies the silver lining: Unicoi’s lineup potentially could be more powerful next year. Yes, a team that hit the second-most homers in the history of high school softball in the nation with 61 could have a more threatening lineup in 2014.
Head coach Grady Lingerfelt said a couple of likely additions will be power hitters possibly in the same category as Taylor Wright, who pounded 17 out of the park this year.
Lingerfelt isn’t predicting the Blue Devils will break their team state record for homers, and he isn’t saying Tiffany Lingerfelt will have a shot at breaking her state mark of 23 home runs.
“It won’t happen again probably because people will pitch around some of our players,” said Lingerfelt. “But we’re going to put a potent lineup on the field, even though we lost four good seniors.”
If Laughren, a rising junior, and Kaylee Nicholson, a rising senior, take their already good pitching up a notch or two, Unicoi County could be a major threat to win the Class AA state title.
Making matters more enticing is the move of perennial power Corryton Gibbs (Class AAA) and Goodpasture Christian (Class A) to other classifications.
However, Lexington will be the clear-cut favorite to repeat its 2013 title. The Lady Tigers return every player on their roster except flex player Caylee Burnine, who played first base.
There were some tough losses, but Northeast Tennessee didn’t leave Spring Fling empty handed.
Four state championships were earned by area athletes, although no team titles were captured.
Overall, the event was once again the crown jewel of anything the TSSAA puts together. Hats off to executive director Bernard Childress for carrying on what Ronnie Carter started 20 years ago.
It wasn’t typical Spring Fling hot weather, but events pretty much came off without a hitch. The notable exception was Elizabethton’s baseball game against Pigeon Forge.
Cyclones’ head coach Joe Nix said the TSSAA didn’t notify him about the one-hour weather delay for the first game Tuesday, pushing back the starting time for the second game that involved Elizabethton. The Cyclones not only had to wait through the extra hour, but also sat at the stadium through a two-hour, 55-minute contest between Murfreesboro Central and Dyersburg.
What was supposed to be a 7:45 p.m. start turned into a 9:26 first pitch, meaning the Cyclones spent almost an extra two hours at the park prior to their game.
In fact, they actually spent more time waiting than playing. Wil Crowe and eventual state champion Pigeon Forge finished the Cyclones off in one hour, 21 minutes.
Speaking of Crowe, he finished off a great senior season in style — although it looked like disaster in the making. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, Crowe surrendered a two-run triple into the deep recesses of left-center field at Reese Smith Field. Then he grounded out to lead off the sixth inning.
Clearly frustrated as he headed to the dugout, the potential first-round pick in the upcoming major-league draft had left the game in the hands of his teammates. But they picked him up.
The Tigers rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh inning to tie the game, and then scored two in the top of the eighth for the win. In the final two innings, Crowe struck out five batters — including three straight in the eighth with mostly high fastballs.
Crowe earned his 16th win of the season, tying the all-time state record. Brantley Jones of Memphis Kingsbury won 16 in 1966, and Phillip Pfiefer of Knox Farragut won 16 in 2010.
For area fans who didn’t get to see Crowe, he developed into a right-handed version of former Science Hill standout Daniel Norris — overmatching hitters with a fastball, but also having very good complementary pitches. He has signed with the University of South Carolina, but will reportedly turn pro if he gets anywhere near the $2 million bonus Norris received.
It was a very impressive performance for Unicoi County’s international doubles team of Mallory Jackson and Czech Republic’s Nela Holkova. They rolled to the Class A-AA state tennis title without getting a serious challenge in The Boro.
The road to the title started in January, said Jackson.
“We started training hard together,” said Jackson. “We would hit two or three hours a day. And we started playing doubles to get a feel for each other, and to know where we are on the court.”
Also standing tall in Murfreesboro was Science Hill track athlete Hunter Boone. He was the state’s best Class AAA triple jumper, winning by over three feet. Boone was one of the favorites coming into the meet, and he came through in the clutch.
Devin Wade’s repeat championship showed a lot of dedication to the pole vault event. The University High senior, who is headed to Lipscomb University, pulled off the rare back-to-back accomplishment. He won with a jump of 12 feet, 6 inches last year, but vaulted 14 feet this season.
Perseverance was the name of the game for Daniel Boone’s 4x800 boys relay team. Chad Whitehead dropped the baton, but began the amazing comeback before Ashton Wilson, Adam Barnard and Jordan Roth completed the journey from the back of the pack to the head of the class.
All things considered, four state titles was a good haul for Northeast Tennessee.