By Trey Williams
The Unicoi County Middle School girls basketball team didn’t allow a rash of injuries and illness to deny it a satisfying season.
The Lady Devils finished with a 15-13 record, but won 70 percent of their games when their three leading scorers – eighth graders Faith Bennett, Allie Lingerfelt and Sara Thomas – were available. Unicoi finished third in the district and got on a postseason run that didn’t conclude until the sectional quarterfinals.
“Only Doak and us were left at that point (from this area),” UCMS coach Jenifer Lingerfelt said. “We lost to Robertsville Middle in the quarterfinals. That’s actually who Doak ended up losing to. Robertsville feeds Oak Ridge and that was an absolutely fierce team. They were really well-coached and just a phenomenal team. I was proud of our little girls for battling them and we were proud of them for making it to the quarterfinals of the sectional.”
Bennett led Unicoi with roughly 10 points per game. Lingerfelt was next (7.0 ppg), followed by Thomas (4.0 ppg). Bennett and Lingerfelt were all-conference. Thomas received honorable mention, as did seventh graders Ava English and Noell Farnor.
Lingerfelt missed the beginning of the season while recovering from a back injury.
“And then we went on an eight-game winning streak (when she returned),” Lingerfelt said, “and then Sara tweaked her knee, and we lost her for about six games. She got to come back for the last two.
“We were plagued by injuries and sickness. It’s been tough in one aspect, but it’s also been a blessing in another aspect. The girls got a chance to build determination and they worked hard as a team to stay positive and kind of overcome some of the setbacks.”
Unicoi won the Christmas tournament at Jonesborough despite being shorthanded throughout due to illness.
“We had so much sickness that we only had six or seven girls that were well enough to go with us to the Christmas tournament,” Lingerfelt said. “Winning that was one of the biggest highlights. We finished fifth overall in the season. That was kind of a battle to even get into fifth.
“Faith Bennett had to step up and be the point guard while Allie was out. So that was tough on Faith, but it was a really good learning experience that will benefit her now as a basketball player to be able to play well in several roles on the court.”
Along with Bennett, Lingerfelt and Thomas, Unicoi must replace Lilly Hopson and Katlyn Nelson next season.
“Lilly Hopson stepped in and out of the lineup,” Lingerfelt said. “She just had a strong leadership presence for us that I think was really important. Katlyn Nelson just has a positive attitude. She’s always smiling, always happy, always encouraging. We had a really strong eighth-grade group. Their chemistry and their attitude really helped keep us positive throughout the year when we were battling some of our injuries.”
The cupboard won’t be bare next season.
“Noell Farnor and Ava English were two seventh graders that really played big for us this year,” Lingerfelt said. “Kaley Toney and Abigail Vidrio are sixth graders and ended up having a lot of minutes. Kaley started in the Christmas tournament and Abigail played most of those games. I’m really looking forward to watching them continue to grow.”
Seventh graders on this year’s team included Marlee Cornett, Ellie Shelton and Madyson Bowling. Lingerfelt said every player on the roster had a significant role in the Blue Devils weathering the storm for a strong finish.
“I’ve been really proud of their attitudes and their spirit all year long,” Lingerfelt said, “and I’ve really watched them all grow and develop the fundamentals of basketball and a lot of the life skills that you hope you see kids develop, which I frankly love so much about sports. They’re cheering for each other, having to step up and dig deep when times are hard. And I saw that in all of them. They just had hearts of gold. I really admired their grit, their persistence and their positive attitude to keep digging at something.”