Lady Rangers withstand 'Lander challenge

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   When Unaka and Cloudland compete, it's always a heated rivalry, but the matchup has not lived up to the hype in girls softball for many years.
   On Friday, the Lady Highlanders gave the Rangers a run for their money, losing a close decision of 2-0 at Ronnie Hicks Field.
   "They're a much-improved team, and I don't think it was so much of a tough game -- I just thought it was well played," said Unaka coach Ronnie Hicks. "There were not many errors on each side, and they had several good catches on some good hits we had. We wanted this as a conference win, and it makes you better when you play games like this."
   Unaka was held scoreless until the fifth frame, when a couple of big hits broke the tie of this defensive struggle.
   Danielle Williams headed the mound for the Rangers, and she got off to a fast start by striking out the first four batters she faced.
   Cloudland captured back-to-back hits in the top of the second from Jamie Icenhour and Daranda Byrd, but they were unable to advance the runners home.
   Unaka experienced the same problem in the third frame, as a base hit over shortstop by Medora Carrier and a walk to Brittany Taylor left runners stranded on second and third base.
   "Danny got a good hit, which was almost a home run, and we did really good on defense, but we just need to get the bat on the ball and during that fifth inning we did, which got us in," said Taylor.
   A hit from Jessica Moffitt appeared to be dropping in right field for Unaka's first score, but Jessica Lunsford made the charge at the ball to come away with a tough catch out in front.
   Cloudland came back to threaten, as Blevins led off with a double to center field, and Icenhour ripped a hit up the middle.
   "We've already had six wins this year, and that has broken our record for seven years now, so that's all you can ask of us," said Blevins. "Our coach has been really working us, and he's hitting balls to us hard, which has helped us in fielding, and we're practicing in the cage every single day on hitting."
   The Rangers avoided any damage with pop-ups going to the shortstop, Taylor, as Cloudland continued in not capitalizing with runners on base.
   "Our nemesis last year was the errors, which just eat us alive," said Hicks. "Most of the runs we gave up last year were unearned, but this year we're not really doing that. Our defense is right now a lot better than it was last year, but it's still not where I want it to be."
   Blevins had a strong outing from the mound for the 'Landers, giving up just two hits through the first four innings.
   "We just couldn't hit the ball that great -- we're used to faster pitching, and it takes us a little while to adapt to the slower pitching," said Williams. "They've improved a lot, and at the end of the game we hit the ball, but it took us a while to get used to it."
   In the bottom of the fifth, Unaka finally found some success from the plate by stringing together a couple of hits to score two runs.
   Taylor became the first one to capture a hit, when she crushed a double down the left-field line.
   "We got the bat on the ball and that's all we needed to do, for we're coming together as a team this year," said Taylor. "We're really getting along as a team, and a lot of our errors are gone this year."
   An error on a pop-up at shortstop put Moffitt on base, with Julie Roberson coming up next to bat.
   Roberson was able to rip a hit up the middle to give the Rangers the lead, with Taylor making her way home.
   A sacrifice fly from Megan Heaton gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead, when the hit brought in Moffitt.
   The 'Landers were only able to come away with just one hit in the last two frames, when Blevins hit a grounder to left field.
   "I think we've improved a lot since last year, because they beat us by 18 runs last year, and this time we held them pretty good," said Blevins. "You can't expect a whole lot out of us, but we're proving ourselves."
   Both Blevins and Icenhour went 2 for 3 at the plate on the evening, while Williams was 2 for 3 at bat for the Rangers and Taylor one of two.
   Unaka threatened once again in the sixth frame, after leading off with two hits from Williams, who almost cleared the left-field fence, and Tara Bishop, who singled.
   An intentional walk to Taylor loaded the bases for the Rangers, but a ground out to Byrd resulted in the final out to keep Unaka from adding any more runs.
   "I've been hitting the ball and then not hitting the ball, so I'm just trying to get back in my rhythm now," said Williams. "I was hoping that the one hit would go over, but it was just that close. Our defense is better than what it was last year, and if we can get the bats going again, then we'll be all right."
   Unaka remains undefeated in the conference with a 9-7 record overall, while Cloudland is at 6-7 overall, which is more wins than what they have had in the past five seasons combined.
   "We haven't been too good in softball at Cloudland," said Lady Highlander coach Gary Keith. "I think we just won two games in the past five years, but we've won six games this year, and these girls have worked their butts off.
   "If we can throw strikes then we're a decent team. When we start walking them and they start scoring runs, then the girls don't have any confidence in themselves, and with the beatings they've took in the past several years, it's understandable."