By Trey Williams
Unicoi County Middle School won the state softball championship this past weekend at Drakes Creek Park in Hendersonville.
The Blue Devils defeated Three Oaks (Dyersburg), 21-10, on Friday and beat Highland Rim 8-5 in the game on Sunday in a game that began on Saturday.
In the championship game, Carly Baxter gave Unicoi a 2-0 lead in the top of the first with a two-out single that scored Aaliyah Engle and Kianna Woodward.
Baxter, a sixth grader starting at shortstop, added an RBI groundout during a three-run third that gave the Blue Devils a 5-1 lead. She finished 1-for-3 with a game-high three RBIs.
Emma Hummer was 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
Noly Cooper got the complete-game victory on the mound, striking out five while walking one.
Woodward, who catches and bats leadoff, was 2-for-3 with two runs, two walks, a double and a triple. Engle also walked twice and scored twice while going 1-for-3 with an RBI and a double.
The Blue Devils stretched the lead to 7-1 with two runs in the fifth, the second of which came when Hummer’s line-drive single scored Baxter.
Highland Rim scored a run in the fifth and the sixth to get within 7-3, but Unicoi added an insurance run in the seventh when Hummer’s two-out single scored Brooklyn Sparks. Highland Rim had four straight batters reach with two outs in the seventh and brought the winning run to the plate. But Cooper ended the game by stranding runners at every base with a strikeout.
“We really felt good about our offense most of the season, but the team truly committed to defensive excellence,” Unicoi coach Stephanie Howard said. “There were several days we never even picked up bats at practice because we knew down the road at some point, the defense would be tested and we’d have to stand strong. That definitely proved true in the state championship game. There were probably two pivotal plays in the championship that could have really changed the outcome of the game if we hadn’t handled them correctly.
“In the very first inning, Highland Rim had already scored one run and was threatening to score another with a runner on third and no outs.”
But Unicoi County ace Noly Cooper got a fly-out.
“That paved the way for right fielder Brooklynn Sparks to catch the deep fly ball for out number one and gun down the runner at home four out number two,” Howard said. “Kianna Woodward placed the tag, showed the ball to the umpire, and just like that, the momentum shifted as the Blue Devil fans erupted in cheers.
“The other play that I believe was a big one was in the sixth inning. Highland Rim was rallying and had already scored in the frame. Runners were on first and second when shortstop Carly Baxter came down with a rocket of a line-drive, then doubled up the runner at second with Emma Hummer covering to end the inning and stop the threat.”
The Blue Devils began the tournament on Friday by piling up 16 hits while defeating Three Oaks in the semifinals. Baxter was 3-for-4 with a game-high five RBIs. Engle was 2-for-3 with four RBIs, three runs and two walks.
Engle scored five runs. She went 1-for-3 with three walks and two RBIs.
Cooper was 3-for-4 with two RBIs, two doubles and two walks and Woodward went 2-for-5 with two runs and two RBIs.
Unicoi scored five runs apiece in each of the final three innings.
“Kyndal Engle was by far the most consistent batter in the lineup. She had a hitting streak of 21 consecutive games. It was remarkable. Each time we looked back at stats, hers were just staggering.
“Kaley Toney led the team in RBIs while Woodward was the team leader in batting average. Aaliyah Engle had most stolen bases this season.
“Emma Hummer and Kinley Carver had the most consistent gloves on the team, and Noly Cooper had amazing pitching totals as well. Cooper totaled 121 strikeouts on the season and kept an ERA of 0.42 even though she faced the toughest teams in the area and the state during postseason. …
“The 2022 season has been a fun, exciting and memorable year,” Howard said. “Weather put a damper on things early in the year, and we actually had two different tournaments canceled due to snow. It just seemed that tons of games were getting postponed, moved, and canceled. It could have discouraged some teams. However, the girls just kept working away.”