Before we take a look at some of the highs and lows through the years, I wanted to take a moment to express a heartfelt thanks to Jeff Birchfield.
Over the past 10-plus years he has pulled off the impossible, seemingly finding a way to be in two places at one time at the Spring Fling. His extra-mile efforts in Murfreesboro may go unnoticed by some, but they haven’t gotten past me. His work has been greatly appreciated.
SPRING FLING III
The 1996 Spring Fling spread way too much misery on Northeast Tennessee. Unicoi County’s baseball and softball teams lost two straight games, Blue Devils’ standout Brooke Parsons lost in the first round in girls tennis after a semifinal appearance the year before, Science Hill’s girls 3,200 relay team missed out on a fourth straight state title with a runner-up finish, and Dobyns-Bennett’s Carla McCready was unable to defend her back-to-back titles in the 1,600 and 3,200.
Added to all of that were two impressive teams standing on the brink of history-making finishes, but it wasn’t meant to be.
THE TOUGHEST LOSS
Dobyns-Bennett baseball fans can point to disappointing finishes, but it’s unlikely any would ever eclipse the heartache that came in 1996.
Ranked No. 1 in the state, the Indians defeated private-school Chattanooga Baylor in the first round, and rode Super 22 player of the year Jason Adams to a win over Germantown Houston in the winners’ bracket final.
Everything was perfectly staged for the Indians to win their first baseball title since 1957. Houston had to play Nashville McGavock in the losers’ bracket final on Friday afternoon. Played in sweltering heat, the game lasted over three hours. Houston trailed 7-0 after two innings, but rallied for a 13-8 win thanks to a five-run seventh inning.
With the championship-round contest slated for just a few hours later, it appeared the Mustangs wouldn’t have much left for the Indians — especially with ace pitcher Josh Paxton unavailable after tossing a one-hitter in the opening round. The heat didn’t let up for the game against the Indians, and several Mustangs’ players suffered from muscle cramps.
Houston sent rarely used left-hander Shaun Flippin to the mound, and he got the job done. Leading 5-2, he pitched out of a bases-loaded nobody-out situation in the bottom of the fifth inning by getting the Indians’ No. 3, 4 and 5 hitters in succession without allowing a run to score.
Failing to beat Flippin, the Indians had to face Paxton on Saturday while Adams didn’t have enough rest to make the start. D-B scored two runs off Paxton in the top of the sixth inning to tie the game, and brought Adams to the mound in the bottom of that frame.
The Indians had the potential go-ahead run on second base with one out in the seventh, but didn’t score. In the bottom of the inning, Jeff Baumtrog ripped a two-out RBI walk-off single to give the Mustangs their first-ever state title.
D-B head coach Mike Ritz said the disappointing finish struck him hard, and hinted at hanging up his coaching spikes.
HEARTACHE ON THE PITCH
Not only was Science Hill ranked No. 1 in the state in 1996, the Hilltoppers were on the verge of a spring soccer national title as they held the top spot in Umbro rankings.
With a record of 20-0-1, the Hilltoppers faced Germantown Houston in the finals on muggy Saturday evening. The start was delayed because the Class A-AA final went all the way to penalty kicks.
The underdog Mustangs jumped ahead on Daniel Ridenour’s goal just 12 minutes into the contest.
Late in the first half, a Houston player was ejected. That meant the Hilltoppers would play the entire second half with a one-man advantage. But with the 1-0 lead, Houston pulled a man from its front line to help on defense and made the slim margin stand up.
Hilltoppers’ head coach Charles Carter said he was proud of what his team accomplished.
“You can only give all you’ve got,” he said.
Northeast Tennessee teams have enjoyed bus rides back to the Tri-Cities area after conquering the state. Others have journeyed home with a sense of accomplishment even when falling short. The following are some memories that stand out in my mind.
The 10-inning masterpiece between Elizabethton and Stewart County in the losers’ bracket final was one of the most exciting baseball games I’ve ever seen at the Spring Fling.
The Cyclones scored three times in the top of the 10th inning, thanks in a big way to a clutch hit off the bat of sophomore Evan Carter. The 8-5 win was filled with ups and downs and twists and turns, and an amazing level of heart and effort.
It was the most dominating performance I have ever witnessed at the Spring Fling. In 116 games over three years in Murfreesboro, Elizabethton’s Danielle Vines won 108 times. She finished with a 9-0 match record and claimed three Class A-AA state tennis titles.
She was so far above the competition, each match seemed to be a foregone conclusion. But as a tremendous competitor, she took nothing for granted. And she also displayed a terrific attitude throughout her threepeat.
The Hilltoppers’ soccer team reached the championship match for the fourth time in school history, and even led 1-0 late in the first half.
But they were unable overcome a pair of successful penalty kicks by Germantown Houston in the 3-2 decision.
I can still see the arch-like flight of Kayla Smith’s dramatic, majestic and shocking home run that helped Daniel Boone force the if-necessary game for the Class AAA softball championship.
The fifth-inning blast off University of Kentucky signee Kelsey Nunley put the Lady Trailblazers ahead 2-1 over Soddy-Daisy. It was the team’s 50th home run of the season and secured win No. 50. Boone’s homer total was the fourth-best single-season total in state history at the time, and slugger Natalie Sheffey set a Tennessee record with 19. Sheffey still holds the state’s season record with 90 RBIs.
But after an amazing five straight state tournament wins to get out of the losers’ bracket, Boone lost to Soddy-Daisy in the championship.
Unicoi County’s softball team won in eight innings, then won in 10 innings before a one-run victory over perennial powerhouse Goodpasture. The Lady Blue Devils lost in eight innings to Goodpasture in the championship round, and then won the if-necessary game, 3-1.
Kara Woods threw all 39 2/3 innings of the tournament for the most impressive pitching performance in area softball history. It seemed like every pitch was delivered with the game hanging in the balance. There wasn’t an easy breath along the way, and Grady Lingerfelt’s coaching was masterful.
And helping my friend Jim Crawford provide radio coverage on WEMB-AM was a treat for me.
It took 13 innings — and some of the most incredible international-tiebreaker-rule defense I have ever seen — to get Unicoi County past Hume-Fogg in the first round of the Class AA state softball tournament.
From there, Coach Charlie Baxter and the Lady Blue Devils rode the momentum to the Class AA championship round before getting clipped by Giles County. In the deciding game, Jackie Clayton’s two-RBI hit in the fifth inning and Beth Haun’s shutout pitching helped produce a 4-0 win over Giles for the Lady Blue Devils’ first-ever softball state title.
The baseball tournaments were moved from Chattanooga to sites in Tullahoma and Winchester, and Science Hill made it their fields of dreams.
Richard Markland’s three-run first-inning double against nationally ranked Germantown set the stage for the Hilltoppers’ stunning run to the Class AAA title. The Hilltoppers pounded the Red Devils with a five-run first inning in the championship-round rematch and won, 8-3. It was their first title in 35 years.
In the Class AA tournament, Unicoi County’s Jonathan Johnson hit a go-ahead grand slam in the fourth inning of the losers’ bracket final. It was career home run No. 50 for the Blue Devils’ slugger, which still stands in the top five on the state’s all-time list.
Marty Smith had to wait until his senior season to get a chance with Unicoi County’s baseball team, but he went over the top in making it count.
In the championship against two-time defending state champion Marshall County, Smith pitched a complete game in the 9-3 victory that gave the Blue Devils’ their fourth state championship.