By Trey Williams
It didn’t appear there’d be much of a learning curve for a young Unicoi County Middle School softball team in 2020.
Despite starting only four eighth graders, Unicoi bolted to a 3-0 start with lopsided victories against Holston (14-0), Rogersville (10-0) and T.A. Dugger (10-1) before the coronavirus pandemic ended its season.
Not bad for a team that only returned three starters in shortstop Katlyn Nelson, second baseman-catcher Faith Bennett and third baseman Kynzie Jones, each of whom is an eighth grader.
“There were some definite question marks coming in to this season,” coach Stephanie Howard said. “We had zero returning pitchers from last year and only three returning starters. However, those three led by example every day.”
Bennett, who batted third and delivered a bases-loaded triple against Holston, tallied a team-high 10 RBIs in three games. Nelson was leading the team with eight runs, five hits and six stolen bases.
And sixth-grade pitcher Noly Cooper was off to an impressive start with 20 strikeouts.
The infield included pitcher-first baseman Kaley Toney, a sixth grader who batted second, Bennett and Nelson. In the first inning of the season opener against Holston, Bennett, Nelson and Toney turned a double play.
“The defensive effort as a whole team was a huge strength for the team,” Howard said. “Kynzie Jones anchored the infield at third base.”
Bennett batted third and Jones batted cleanup.
Hensley, an outfielder-pitcher, was hitting fifth. Fellow outfielders Chloe Moore and Peyton Higgins hit sixth and seventh, respectively. Moore went 3-for-3 against Rogersville.
Catcher Kianna Woodward, outfielders Miley Woodward and Haley Rush and Cooper rounded out the lineup. Miley Woodward made an impressive catch against T.A. Dugger. Kianna Woodward, shrugging off an injury, made several blocks behind the plate.
Moore, Higgins, Miley Woodward and Rush are in the seventh grade. Kianna Woodward is a sixth grader.
“From summer practices to conditioning to regular season, they just kept working and giving us everything they had,” Howard said. “The improvement we had seen from them was unreal.”
Unicoi’s team included Leia Richardson, Allie Maden, Madalin Huskins, Kyndal Engle, Emma Hummer and Kinley Carver.
“Our hopes for the season were extremely high with our ultimate goals being both conference and area tournament champions,” Howard said. “Our defense was becoming pretty tough while our bats were shaping up as well. We had contributors from all grade levels, great attitudes, and were truly coming together. The team had a special season ahead of them for sure.”
Of course, the future is bright. The junior varsity was also 3-0 behind the arms of pitchers Kyndal Engle and Kaley Toney.
“We are losing five eighth graders to high school, and we wish them the best up there,” Howard said. “Everyone else will return, and we cannot wait to see what big things they can accomplish next season.”