Unicoi County too potent for Lady Warriors

By Doug Janz

STAR CORRESPONDENT

   ERWIN -- The Happy Valley Lady Warriors knew they faced a daunting task against Unicoi County and actually, in the long run, their 15-1 loss in the District 1-AA softball semifinals on Tuesday night wasn't all that bad.
   After all, Unicoi County went 12-0 in Watauga Conference play this season and outscored league opponents by an astonishing 235-5. That's an average win margin of about 19 run per game.
   More important, though, is the fact the Warriors are still alive to play for a spot in the district final -- and a regional berth -- against Volunteer today.
   "I don't think any Happy Valley team has gone on past the district," said Lady Warrior coach Karri Killen. "We've still got a chance to sort of make history. Tomorrow it's either go on or go home."
   The Warriors will take on Volunteer today at 7 p.m. in the loser's bracket final, with the winner meeting Unicoi County in the championship on Friday at 7. The loser is eliminated. Both district finalists advance to Region 1-AA play next Monday.
   Happy Valley finished the regular season in third place at 9-5, while Volunteer was second at 11-3, but the Warriors have beaten the Falcons two out of three times -- splitting during the season before beating Volunteer Monday in the second round of the district.
   "We had a lot of momentum coming into today after beating Volunteer," said Warriors catcher Mandy Byrd.
   "We've got to come out and play on top of our game," Killen said, "and put this one behind us."
   The rest of the league would no doubt like to put the Devils behind them, too, but Unicoi County has continued its run as one of the best teams in the state. The Blue Devils are 42-2 overall and prohibitive district and regional favorites.
   They showed why during Tuesday's win over the Warriors, taking a first-inning lead and never faltering. Starting Happy Valley pitcher Leanna Howell (2-6) gave up a double, had a runner reach base on an error, and then a sacrifice fly brought in a second run.
   Jeanie Hawkins made a fine catch of a fly ball to center field to end the inning, but the Devils struck with five runs in the second inning, sparked by DeAnna Rice's three-run double, and put the game away with eight runs in the fourth inning.
   Killen used three pitchers -- Howell, Kortney Goulds and Alicia Dick -- but Unicoi County wasn't fazed.
   "We wanted to change up as much as we could," Killen said. "Once their hitters catch up, we've got to make a change. Every single one of them is a good hitter."
   Unicoi's Rice was 3 for 4 with two doubles, three runs and three RBI, and Kim Anders scored three times. Every player in the Devils' hitting lineup scored a run.
   Happy Valley (17-15 overall) got its run in the third inning when Christy Shell singled and Byrd followed with an opposite-field single. But the Unicoi County left fielder slipped in the wet grass and the ball scooted to the fence, allowing Shell to score.
   Kate Powell moved Byrd over to third with a long fly to center, but Unicoi County pitcher Beth Haun shut the door after that, getting the third out on a pop foul, then mowing down the next six batters to end the game in five innings.
   Haun (16-0) struck out four and walked none, allowing only three hits.
   Happy Valley, which had lost to the Devils by scores of 15-2 and 14-1 during the season, has shown plenty of spark during the district tournament, and the fans have provided loud support.
   "We've just gotta be confident, make the routine plays, and put the ball in play," said Byrd. "Unicoi County's a good team, but I think if any team in the league can beat them it's us, if we can get past Volunteer again."
   In Tuesday's other game, Volunteer eliminated Sullivan Central 6-4 in the loser's bracket semifinals.