Lady Devils keep 'Betsy at bay

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR Staff

   ERWIN -- It's been awhile since the Region 1-AA softball championship hasn't been hung in Unicoi County High School.
   That trend won't change for this year.
   With a tough Elizabethton Lady Cyclone squad fighting in its first regional championship appearance, the Lady Devils took advantage of crucial errors with big hits to pull away with a 7-0 shutout at the Lady Devil Diamond on Wednesday.
   "Anytime you make mistakes against a good team, they'll make you pay," said Elizabethton coach Ken Hardin, whose team is still in the hunt with a sectional game Friday.
   "We're still in it. We're as far as this school's ever been and I'm proud of the girls. We didn't play our best game today."
   Elizabethton had two strong opportunities to score with two runners on base in the second and third innings before Natalie Lockner and her Lady Devil defense recorded the outs.
   Unicoi County was expecting a strong performance from the Cyclones, and sort of raised its playing level for the evening.
   "We knew it would be tough playing a team that good for the sixth time," said Lady Devil coach Doyle Phipps, whose team won its sixth straight regional crown.
   "I was concerned about that," he said. "(Elizabethton has) been playing better and it was hard to face them. But our girls came through and did well. I'm real happy."
   Lockner, who threw a perfect game against Elizabethton in her other meeting with the team in the regular season, took the win on the mound with six strikeouts and allowing four hits.
   She had the hit to help seal the deal for her team, launching grand slam over the center-field wall in the third inning.
   "She pitched a great game," said Hardin. "We hit her better today than we did in the past, but they didn't fall for us."
   As for Phipps, he was pleased with his starter's performance.
   "One inning, she had a couple on base and struck out the next three. That was big," Phipps said of Lockner, who had an allergic reaction over midway through the game. "Her arms and legs got red and she started itching. We don't have any idea what it was."
   The Lady Cyclones got their strongest offensive innings in the second and third stanzas.
   Kate Hubbard opened the second frame with a double, with Tia Nave walking. Both runners advanced on a wild throw, but Lockner struck out the next three batters to get out of the inning for the Lady Devils.
   Elizabethton battled back in the third inning with a double from Mary Edgar and an errored shot from Jessica Robinson.
   A hit from Kristie Keys wound up with an out at the plate, as Edgar was tagged out by Stephanie Byrd. A pop out halted the inning for the Lady Cyclones.
   Unicoi got on the board first in the first inning after two outs when Rachel Edwards singled and Byrd walked. Elizabeth Weaver brought both runs across the plate when she delivered an errored grounder.
   She would score on an RBI single from Rachel Tilson.
   The Lady Devils got the remainder of their runs in the third inning. Edwards advanced on an error, with a walk to Weaver and another Tilson single loading the bases for Lockner.
   Lockner then went yard, driving one over two trucks in center field to make it 7-0.
   Elizabethton played solid defense from that point on as Mary Edgar replaced Keys, who threw a good game despite the strong bats from the Lady Devils.
   Edgar and company held the Lady Devils without a run for the rest of the game, but their offense was held short as well.
   Unicoi (30-11) will host Kingston, while Elizabehton (22-19) will travel to face Lenoir City in Friday's sectional round to try and earn a trip to the Bluff City of Memphis and the Spring Fling.
   For the Lady Cyclones, they are now preparing for a possible upset west of Knoxville.
   "At this time of year anybody can win," added Hardin. "If you had told a lot of people at the beginning of the year that we would be here, they would've called you crazy."
   "We're not pleased," he said. "We're going to give it our all."
   Cassidy Blevins added a hit for Elizabethton in the seventh inning, while Crystal Rutherford, Kellye Lingerfelt and Emily Bennett all hit for Unicoi.