Lady Cyclones clipped by UC

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   CHURCH HILL--The Elizabethton softball team threw everything it had at Unicoi County, but a two-run homer from the Blue Devils late in the contest became the deciding factor in a 5-3 final for the District 1-AA softball championship.
   The Cyclones controlled the momentum throughout the matchup, but hits at key times were the difference for Unicoi County in making the repeat as the tournament's champion.
   Elizabethton came out swinging with intent to take the title away from the Blue Devils, who have been dominant the last several years.
   "We hit the ball real well today, but we just didn't get a break or two when we needed it," said Elizabethton coach Kenny Hardin. "I'm so proud of these girls, it's unbelievable. "They're playing their hearts out right now."
   A double from Mary Edgar and a single to center field by Jessica Robinson set up the first two scores of the ball game in the top of the first inning.
   Kristie Keys smacked a sacrifice fly to right field, which drove in Edgar to give Elizabethton the early lead.
   The Cyclones struck again when Katie Hubbard knocked a double to drive home Robinson.
   Nobody gave Elizabethton much of a chance coming into the tournament, since it has such a young team and lack of experience, but the Cyclones proved to be a threat as each of their hitters connected on a base hit for a total of 13 for the game.
   "We hit really good off of them, but they made a lot of good plays, and we made a lot of really good plays, and it was just a close game," said Robinson. "I think they thought they would kill us, but I think we shocked them today.
   "I'm just really proud of everyone and I think we'll do good in the Regionals."
   Not only did every batter capture a hit, but the Lady Cyclones were able to get a runner on base in every inning, as their only senior, Whitney Lyons, smacked a double to left-center field in the top of the second.
   "Just beating Happy Valley yesterday was like a really good thing because out of four years we have never done that," said Lyons. "Going to the regionals is another big thing, and I'm so proud of my team."
   Unicoi took advantage of every opportunity it received, and after facing two outs with a runner on first base in the bottom of the second, the Blue Devils were able to come up big with back to back hits.
   A line drive from Kelly Lingerfelt got past the glove of Robinson, who tried to make the leap for the grab, but the ball was a just little too high to retrieve.
   The MVP of the tournament, Crystal Rutherford, came up to nail a shot in center field, which drove home both Rachael Tilson and Lingerfelt to make it a 2-2 tie after two innings played.
   Rutherford drove in four of the five runs scored by Unicoi, including the game-winning homer in the sixth frame.
   "We needed the hit at the end. The game was tied and we needed a base hit or something to get some runs in," said Rutherford. "We started coming together as a team and getting the bat on the ball. It really paid off because now we're district champions."
   It was a wasted opportunity for the Cyclones in the top of the third after Keys led off with an infield single and Hubbard ripped a double to left field.
   Rachael Edwards came back for the Blue Devils by throwing two consecutive strike-outs and a line-out to the first-baseman for the final out.
   The Cyclones left two runners stranded on base in the fifth frame, when Tia Nave hit a single to center field and Lana Blevins made the rip up the middle.
   "I thought we had it, but they just shook it off and came back to beat us," said Blevins. "I thought we were going to become district champs, but they came back and that's how it goes."
   Not being able to produce runs with people in scoring position came back to haunt Elizabethton in the bottom of the inning.
   Emily Bennett led off with a shot up the middle for Unicoi, and a base hit to right field from Edwards placed runners on second and third with no outs.
   After the two hits leading-off Elizabethton elected to bring Robinson to the mound to replace Edgar who had pitched a solid game to that point.
   The Cyclones nearly kept the Blue Devils off the board, when a play on a sacrifice fly from Elizabeth Weaver was close to becoming an out.
   A throw from the left fielder, Abby Jenkins made it to the plate, but the catcher was unable to make the grab and tag, with Bennett crossing the plate for the score.
   The throw from home to third base enabled Nave to make the tag for the final out, with Elizabethton trailing 3-2 heading into the sixth frame.
   Elizabethton responded by coming back and forging the tie in the top of the sixth.
   "Coach Hardin has done a super job with Elizabethton's program this year, and his team has played as well as anybody at the end of the season and in the district tournament," said Unicoi County coach Doyle Phipps. "They didn't give up after the big win against Happy Valley, and a lot of credit goes to Elizabethton. They played well."
   Brittany Smith led off with a hit up the middle, and a double from Edgar produced her third hit on the evening as she went 3-for-4 from the plate.
   "We had some tough plays and they hit the ball good and so did we, but in the end they came through and we could have used a couple of more hits," said Edgar. "I'm still proud we came this close because we had played them not as close throughout the year, and we're doing a lot better."
   Robinson knocked a ground out to shortstop that drove in Smith, and a shot from Keys nearly dropped for a base hit which would have give the Cyclones the lead, but Natalie Lockner made the nice run and catch to get the Blue Devils out of the inning.
   A lead off hit from Tilson to right field put the go-ahead run on first base for Unicoi in the bottom of the sixth.
   Two fly-outs to right and center field enabled Elizabethton to nearly escape the frame without receiving any damage.
   Rutherford had been effective for the Blue Devils at the plate all tournament long, and a two-run homer to left center field would become the deciding point in a tough fought contest.
   "Our girls never gave up, and the thing is we've played this team four times and beaten them in all four, and that's scary," said Phipps. "We got some big timely hits a lot of times with two outs and then the one in the sixth inning. That was big for us."
   Elizabethton had once last chance in the top of the seventh, but its first two attempts at bat resulted in outs.
   Blevins managed to reach first base, after she grounded a hit to the first baseman, who had trouble in fielding the ball.
   Jenkins was the only hitter for Elizabethton who hadn't acquire a hit in the game, but a shot to right field enabled her to reach first base, putting Blevins on second.
   This was as close as the Cyclones came. A grounder to shortstop by Smith produced the third out, with Unicoi winning the district title.
   The Lady Blue Devils will host Rutledge on Monday while Elizabethton travels to Pigeon Forge as the Lady Cyclones try to continue their Cinderella story with their much-improved season from last year.
   "We wasn't supposed to be here, but I think we proved we belong," said Hardin. "I think we go onto Pigeon Forge, but it's a great opportunity for our program, and if we play with this kind of heart then we'll give them a good game down there."
   Note: Edgar, Robinson and Lana were named to the all-tournament team from Elizabethton, while Alicia Dick and Terra Whaley received honors for Happy Valley.