Devils pry title from Cyclones

By Doug Janz
STAR CORRESPONDENT

   KINGSPORT -- It would be hard for the Elizabethton Cyclones to have come any closer without winning.
   One pitch, one ball outside the strike zone, from Unicoi County's Marcus Longcrier, and the District 1-AA championship was Elizabethton's.
   Instead, the Blue Devils' remarkable streak of district tournament titles grew.
   With Saturday's 8-7 eight-inning victory at Hunter-Wright Stadium, Unicoi County has won 19 straight district championships. The upstart Cyclones, now 13-18, were stunned and distraught after the loss, but their unlikely postseason isn't over. Elizabethton plays at Chuckey-Doak on Monday at 5 p.m. in the Region 1-AA semifinals.
   "These guys have never been put in this situation before," said Cyclone head coach Steve McKinney. "We're just going to regroup and get ready for Chuckey-Doak. Maybe we can get another shot at Unicoi on Wednesday."
   The Blue Devils (30-12) will play host to District 2-AA runner-up Rutledge on Monday night. The winners of both Monday semifinals will meet on Wednesday for the region championship, so these two Watauga Conference rivals could meet for a fifth time this season, if they can survive the regional first round.
   Elizabethton lost twice to Chuckey-Doak this season, 19-2 in an errorfest in Afton, then 8-4 at Elizabethton.
   The district championship game was a classic battle, although it was far from well-played. In fact, both teams muddled through most of the game with spotty hitting, shaky baserunning and nervous defense.
   The Cyclones made five errors, issued five walks hit a batter, while the Devils gave up nine walks, hit two batsmen and committed three errors.
   But both sides seemed to make the big plays when they had to, and the Cyclones showed their toughness by constantly battling back.
   "I've got a tremendous amount of respect for Coach McKinney and his staff," said UCHS head coach Chris Bogart. "They did a great job for them to get where they did."
   The tension grew throughout the game, but reached a fever pitch in the bottom of the seventh with the score tied. The Cyclones loaded the bases against Longcrier, a first baseman who is far down the Unicoi County pitching rotation.
   He walked Joseph Taylor, who then moved to second on Jeremy Hodge's sacrifice bunt.
   The Devils chose to intentionally walk B.J. Miller, and Travis Burns hit a powerful fly ball that Unicoi's superb centerfielder, Darrell Roop, tracked down for the second out.
   The Devils gambled by walking Justin Williams to load the bases and put Chris Hurt at the plate, allowing the defense the luxury of a forceout at any base. Longcrier threw three straight balls, and suddenly the Cyclones were on the verge of bringing home the winning run and the district title.
   Devils' catcher Justin Benard went to the mound for a quick word with Longcrier, building the tension, before the pitcher fired a strike, then snaked another pitch around the outside corner for strike 2. The Cyclones screamed it was too far outside.
   "Blue (umpire) called that on the outside," McKinney said tactfully. "That one hurt us."
   On the payoff pitch, Hurt ripped a grounder up the middle that second baseman Josh Williams fielded for the forceout, ending the inning.
   The Devils eaked out a run in the top of the eighth on an error, a hit batsman and an RBI single from Longcrier, and then barely held on in the bottom of the inning for the victory.
   It didn't come without some drama, when Michael Porter and Jordan Bray were each hit by a pitch from Unicoi County's second reliever of the game, sophomore Drew Anders, putting two men on with one out.
   But Anders was able to get two flyouts to end the game, and when Roop snagged the last one the Devils had their title, coming out of the loser's bracket after a 2-1 loss to Elizabethton last week.
   It had looked like things were about to fall the Cyclones' way after a week of big performances.
   "The kids wanted this one," said McKinney. "They knew what was in store for them if they won."
   The Cyclones had trailed by a couple of runs for most of the game before tying it in the sixth. Williams singled, Hurt advanced him with a sacrifice bunt, and then Williams scored when Porter reached on an error.
   For the game, Miller scored twice, Williams had two hits, an RBI and accounted for three runs, and Porter and Hodge each had two hits. Daniel Range and Porter each had an RBI.
   Porter made a big play in the field on a long fly ball in the sixth, misjudging it for a second before adjusting and then making the catch while sliding on his back. Hodge showed his skills in the eighth, sprinting for a gem of a catch in centerfield.
   The Cyclones started Miller on the mound. He gave way to sophomore lefty Zack Stipe in the third, and Stipe kept the Devils quiet except for one unearned run before Wes "The Bus" Greer took over, in the sixth, allowing just one unearned run, but Greer (4-5) was tagged with the loss.
   Unicoi County's Longcrier (3-1) was the winner and Anders earned the save.
   "It was an exciting game for both sides," McKinney said. "We had a chance to win it there in the seventh. A hit here or there and we could've won it.
   "But I couldn't ask for anything more from our players. That's what I like about these kids. They don't quit. They'll fight you tooth and nail."
   Bowers, Miller and Stipe were named to the district all-tournament team.
   Unicoi County's Nick Garland, who won two complete games, was chosen as MVP.