By Trey Williams
Unicoi County players were angels of mercy at the Little League Softball 12-under state tournament, and for the second straight year, they left wearing the crown.
Unicoi County won all three games in Clarksville in mercy-shortened fashion, prevailing 10-0 in four innings in each contest.
The championship game was played Monday evening against Pleasant View. Carly Baxter, Laci Gobble and Katy Gryder were each dominant on the mound in the tournament, combining to allow one hit and four walks in 12 innings.
Unicoi lost one game en route to the state title last season.
“Last year we actually got beat and had to play the if-necessary game and we won it in the bottom of the sixth,” Unicoi coach Andy Baxter said. “We had three one-run games with Smith County last year. We beat them 5-4 and they beat us 3-2 and we came back and beat them, 3-2.
“This year was a little smoother. We got great pitching and each game we were hitting line-drives all over the field. There weren’t a lot of walks. It was fun.”
In the opener against Morristown on Saturday, Baxter went 3-for-3 with a double and three RBIs. She also was a leadoff single from a perfect game on the mound.
Gryder went 3-for-3 with a double, triple and three RBIs against Morristown.
In the winners’ bracket final, Gobble and Gryder combined on a no-hitter against Smith County. Unicoi pitchers issued one walk in that one.
Abigail Peterson went 2-for-3 with two RBIs. Linville delivered a two-run triple and Addy Campbell had a line-drive, two-run single.
Baxter and Gobble combined on a no-hitter in the championship game.
Baxter also made two exceptional plays at shortstop while Gobble relieved during the final 2 1/3 innings. She made a daring snag while avoiding a collision on a pop-up in center field and ranged far to her left to start a 6-3 groundout.
Good defense was also on display after Morristown led off the opener with what proved to be the lone hit allowed by Unicoi in the tournament. The Morristown base-runner advanced to third on a bunt. A suicide squeeze bunt ensued, but alert Unicoi catcher Brooklyn Sparks caught the popped-up bunt.
“Brooklyn Sparks made a really good catch on the pop-up,” Baxter said. “Emmi Linkous made a really nice catch in right field in that game. We only had one error in three games.
“We made some really nice plays in the field. And not only did we throw three shutouts, we gave up one hit in the tournament, and it was the first batter we faced.”
Gobble was 3-for-3 with three runs in the championship. Baxter was 2-for-2 with a walk and two runs, and Sparks was 2-for-3. McKenzie Tipton went 2-for-2 and delivered two RBIs that ended it in walk-off style.
Unicoi County, which includes Chloe Hampton, Madison Van Tassel, Emma Grace Anders and Kira Whitson, will open play in the Southeast Region in Warner Robins, Georgia on July 23 against Georgia.
“I think it’s the fourth time we’ve got to go to the Southeast Regional,” Baxter said. “But I think it’s the first time we’ve gone in back-to-back years.”
Sparks and Baxter are the only returning starters from last year’s state championship team. They also started for the Unicoi Middle School state championship team.
Who knows, the girls might claim another title before the month’s complete.
“I mean, you never know until you get there and play the game,” Baxter said. “But I really like our team. We’re solid. We’ve got pitching depth. We’ve got a good defense. And we really hit the ball down here in Clarksville.”
Baxter’s sister Katie, who lives in Nashville, attended two of the games. She played on a Little League state tournament team, as did Andy, and they each won a high school state championship while playing for their father Charlie at Unicoi County.
Another softball state title could be in the pipeline.
“With as much talent as there is already in the high school, and as much talent that’s coming up through the middle school,” Baxter said, “there’s no reason that the high school in Unicoi County shouldn’t be competing for state championships for at least the next six years.”
Of course, Northeast Tennessee is producing a lot of quality softball players these days.
“Definitely, Jonesborough has been the best team we’ve played this summer,” Baxter said. “Last year, the best pitcher we faced was from Daniel Boone, and this year the best we’ve faced is the one from Jonesborough. Our area is strong. We could probably go to the state and finish one, two and three.
“It was a battle just to get out of the district. So it was it was a little more fun to have some breathing room in these games down here.”