By Jeff Keeling
Liberty Bell Middle School’s softball team put together one of its best seasons on record this year, then capped it off with an exciting run through the conference tournament that ended with a first-ever conference title.
The Lady Patriots – who hadn’t beaten Unicoi County in eight years until notching two wins over them this year – topped the Blue Devils 8-5 April 27 to win the final. The victory came on the heels of a dramatic 6-5 walkoff win over TA Dugger (Elizabethton) in the semifinals. Liberty Bell finished the season riding an 11-game win streak, and was 13-2 overall.
Sixth-grader Abigail Taylor pitched both games, and helped herself at the plate, driving in the winning run with a two-out double in the bottom of the seventh that scored Shayna Price.
“We rode her like a horse,” third-year coach Megan Harmon said of Taylor. “She pitched every single pitch, every single out of both of those games. She was my go-to this year, pretty much.”
In the semifinal against some uncharacteristic errors early put Liberty Bell in a 4-1 hole after two innings, but the Patriots went to work in the middle innings, with the defense settling down and the offense – aided by a couple of key Sejal Neas hits – chipping away at the deficit. Liberty Bell took its first lead, 5-4, in the bottom of the sixth, but Dugger tied it up 5-5 in the top of the seventh.
After Price nearly ended the game herself with a line shot off the right field fence, Taylor came up with one out and produced the walk-off double. Harmon said the semifinal game was characteristic of the team’s season.
“If the defense was struggling a little bit, they made up for it with their bats. If the bats weren’t coming around they were playing great defense.”
Unicoi led 4-1 in the final, but a four-run fourth by the Lady Patriots gave Liberty Bell a lead it would not relinquish.
After adding runs in the fifth and sixth, Liberty Bell got a deep home run from Price, the team’s third baseman, that easily cleared the center field fence.
Unicoi County would make it interesting, though. Liberty Bell surrendered a run in the seventh, and allowed an additional two base runners to bring the tying run to the plate with two outs before center fielder Gia Hickman hauled in a deep fly with a running, over-the-shoulder catch to seal the championship. The middle school season is a short one, but Harmon said the girls matured throughout it.
“They really learned how to come together and play every single pitch, because one pitch can change the whole ballgame. We hit our peak at the right time.”