Unicoi County took a major step forward in a span of three days.
Already considered one of the better baseball teams in Northeast Tennessee, the Blue Devils edged another frontrunner with Wednesday's 3-2 win over Sullivan South. It was a hard-fought road win that made the Blue Devils (7-0 overall) the team to beat in the Three Rivers Conference.
Then Unicoi put itself on the state radar with back-to-back wins over Pigeon Forge on Thursday (at home) and Friday (on the road).
The victories were significant not just because Pigeon Forge is the defending Class AA state champion, but also because of the dramatic win in Erwin. Trailing by five runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Blue Devils rallied for a 9-9 tie to force extra innings.
They rallied again for two runs in the eighth inning, and then pushed across the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth for a 12-11 decision in a game that lasted nearly four hours.
It was the type of come-from-behind victory good baseball teams tend to have over the course of a season. Then the Blue Devils made it count even more by traveling and whipping the Tigers 12-5 on their home field.
Another challenging week faces the Blue Devils with Monday's game at Sullivan East before playing host to Happy Valley today. At the end of the week, the Blue Devils will head to Loudon for a trio of games.
A stout lineup — headed by senior shortstop Ethan Rice — combined with gritty and tough pitching has helped Unicoi get off to a hot start. Rice was crazy good against Pigeon Forge, going 6 for 8 with four homers, eight RBIs, and eight runs.
It's still very early, but the Blue Devils have made a rather noisy statement so far.
University High's softball team is off to a very impressive start, and it could be another strong season.
The Lady Junior Bucs, who have reached the Class A state tournament three times in the last four seasons, finished runner-up in the Gordonsville tournament over the weekend. They won five of six games before the championship loss to Strawberry Plains Carter.
UH had three shutouts in the tournament — Watertown, Jackson County and Middlesboro, Ky. — and a tough 2-1 loss to White County. The Junior Bucs lost 5-1 to Carter.
“We shot ourselves in the foot against White County,” said coach Keith Jeffers. “We had three errors in one inning. Against Carter we just ran out of gas.
“In two days we got to play seven games. We got a lot of at-bats, and got to see different pitchers. With more at-bats we can adjust and get our mechanics right and be better later in the year.”
UH improved to 9-2 overall on the season, including wins over Class AAA teams David Crockett and Tennessee High. The Junior Bucs are 2-0 in Watauga Valley Conference play.
Tanner Horton has taken over as the top pitcher. The junior racked up 43 strikeouts in 28 innings over the weekend.
“One of our pitchers was out of town, but (Horton) came up big for us over the weekend,” said Jeffers. “When she throws, it's almost a natural drop ball the way she releases it. She's not super fast, but hits her spots.”
In the lineup, UH is tough deep into the order. Leadoff hitter Barrett Wherry (Sr., cf) is hitting .364 on the season with two homers and five doubles. She is followed by Taylor Treadway (Sr., 3b), who has a .351 average with a homer and three doubles.
Senior catcher Belle Bright (.485, 6 doubles) bats third and junior first baseman Mollee Cohee (.538, 2 HR) is in the clean-up spot.
Also off to good starts are Horton (.480) and freshman shortstop Ari Ramsaran (.448, 3 HR, 3 doubles).
Lexi Crouthers contributes in the pitching mix.
“We always start with trying to win the conference,” said Jeffers. “Then we want to win the district and region, and be able to host a sectional game.
“We have a ton of experience playing with each other. We have everybody back, except for Haley Faulkner, who pitched about 60 percent of the time last year.”
UH was scheduled to play Monday against Johnson County, and then had a week off until playing host to Unaka on March 31.
North Greene, which lost 7-4 to UH on March 13, figures to be the Junior Bucs' toughest league competition. The Lady Huskies feature first baseman Shayna Harmon.
Unaka and South Greene (which returns Rachel Brooks to the circle) could also figure in the title mix. The Rangers have freshman Sarah Hardin leading the way in the circle with Haley Fair, Chelsea Grubb and Taylor Dilks also getting innings.
At the plate, Brooke Austin (Jr., 1b), Caitlyn Buckles (Sr., 2b) and Dilks (Jr., 3b) are getting things done.
“Offense is our strength,” said head coach Kayla Clawson. “We take a lot of cuts in practice. The girls get 100-200 every practice.”
Unaka is young with four freshmen in the mix.
Hampton and Cloudland will have to battle to keep pace in the league.
The Lady Bulldogs (0-3, 3-9) are leaning on the pitching of junior Carmen Calderon. Leading the way at the plate are Calderon, Maggie Burchett (jr., c) and freshman first baseman Sarah Kyte. Also, head coach Bill Doff said Dawn Godsey (So., of) has done well at the plate and in the field.
“We've hit the ball real well,” said Doff. “That has been our strength.
“Right now we've got a lot of older girls hurt, and we're playing a lot of freshmen in the infield and just making young mistakes.”
Follow Douglas Fritz on Twitter @FritzBlitzzz.
Baseball games of the week: (Today) Happy Valley at Unicoi County; (Wednesday) Unaka at University High, (Monday) Sullivan East at Sullivan South.
Other than the Warriors traveling to Erwin, it's a light week for big games in the area.
However, Science Hill will play in a Pigeon Forge tournament on Friday and Saturday, and Dobyns-Bennett will be in Murfreesboro for a tournament at the end of the week.
Also, Sullivan South gets a taste of some tough teams in the Sevierville area.
Prep signings: Science Hill's Cole Greer has made his college choice. The senior striker will soon sign to play soccer at Belmont Abbey, a Division II school in North Carolina. …
Another Science Hill athlete, Sarah Fickley, will make her choice official Wednesday. She will sign with Union University to run cross country. The signing will take play at the Science Hill gym at 3 p.m.
Dobyns-Bennett and Unicoi County are riding above the rest of the baseball crowd in this week's Prep Top 10:
Team W-L Prv
1. Dobyns-Bennett 7-0 1
2. Unicoi County 7-0 3
3. Science Hill 4-3 2
4. Sullivan South 5-2 4
5. Sullivan East 5-1 5
6. Daniel Boone 4-2 6
7. Elizabethton 4-6 8
8. Happy Valley 5-3 9
9. North Greene 6-1 10
10. David Crockett 2-4 7
(tie) Greeneville 5-3 nr
Softball games of the week: (Today) Happy Valley at Unicoi County, (Thursday) Daniel Boone at Science Hill, (Friday-Saturday) NFS tournament at Erwin.
Happy Valley will try to make its voice heard as it visits the perennial power Lady Blue Devils. …
The Lady Trailblazers will try to regain some Big Seven Conference footing as they visit the Lady Hilltoppers. …
Unicoi head coach Grady Lingerfelt said this year's NFS event has one of its strongest fields, including Knox Bearden and Volunteer — which boasts sophomore ace pitcher Morgan Marshall and her 60-plus mph fastball.
Volunteer pounded Science Hill 9-0 last week, and powered its way into the No. 3 spot in this week's softball rankings:
Team W-L Prv
1. Unicoi County 3-1 1
2. Daniel Boone 6-3 2
3. Volunteer 7-4 5
4. Elizabethton 5-0 4
5. Science Hill 7-4 3
6. Greeneville 2-0 6
7. University High 9-2 8
8. Happy Valley 7-1 7
9. Dobyns-Bennett 5-7 9
10. Sullivan East 3-2 10comments powered by Disqus