North Georgia arms lead the way
Between Phillips and Coan, Saints have more options than ever
At this time last season, coach Mike Davenport’s North Georgia Saints were 50-0 and poised to take on the Division II Softball Championship field behind the pitching of Honda Award nominee Sarah Phillips.
The Saints were unable to bring home the title in 2010, but they are back in Salem, Va., this week for another shot. This time, with a pitching staff of Phillips, now a senior, along with junior Jessica Coan and sophomore Krysten Connelly in the circle.
Coan joined the staff after transferring to North Georgia from Georgia Tech. She has pitched 213.1 innings, striking out 326 en route to a 27-4 record and Louisville Slugger/NFCA Division II first-team All-America honors.
“The kids have been very unselfish,” Davenport said of his pitching staff. “In Sarah, you’ve got an All-American returning for her senior year. I’ve been asked a number of times how she’s reacting. She’s been nothing but the perfect team player. She welcomes another arm to the staff.”
A year ago, Phillips pitched 300.0 of the Saints' 348.0 innings. With a 1.00 ERA and a 44-2 record, she was the top player in Division II college softball.
“It was kind of hard at first, just because I was used to being in there every game. It was an eye-opener,” Phillips said of sharing the pitching load this season. “At the same time, it’s nice not having to throw every single game. I was kind of exhausted after last year. I pitched basically every game.
“When you pitch that many games, it takes a toll on your arm. I wasn’t necessarily hurting, it was a soreness or over-use type of thing. Now I feel like because I haven’t had to pitch both ends of a doubleheader and pitch in all the games, I’ve been able to rest.”
While the Phillips' arm has reaped the benefits, Davenport thinks it's been a positive for the program as well.
“For me, it’s been a perfect balance,” Davenport said. “You can’t make it that way, we’re just fortunate. You have a returning senior All-American who throws hard and low in the zone. We have a junior transfer from a Division I program who throws up in the zone and then Krysten Connelly is our sophomore who is learning the ropes from those two. Having three options at any moment gives me so many opportunities to put them in the game and mix speeds and mix locations if we have to.”
For Coan, North Georgia’s education program was the top draw when she made the decision to transfer from Georgia Tech, where she had a 15-1 record with 125 strikeouts in 85.1 IP last season.
“This season has been great,” Coan said. “I love my team. I love playing for coach Davenport. The program itself is just great. It was a hard thing for me to do, but this team has made it 150 times easier than it could have been. They were all very welcoming, the town was very welcoming. I feel like I got here and they took me right in.”
Phillips, a second-team NFCA All-Region selection this season, speaks highly of her new teammate.
“(Jessica) has been great,” Phillips said. “She made the switch from Division I to Division II, which I don’t think was very hard for her to make. We all welcomed her as a part of the team and she has brought a different approach. She is a different pitcher than I am. Her go-to pitch is going to be different than mine, so it’s another different look for the batters. It keeps the hitters honest and keeps us fresh.”
Coan agrees with the assesment.
“As a pitcher, in my mind, it is the same,” Coan said of the differences between Division I and Division II softball. “I’m still trying to win every pitch and win every batter. If you can not throw that mistake pitch and beat every batter that you battle with, then you’ll throw a good game and win the game.”
The variable staff opens NCAA Championship play against Indiana (Pa.). While the Saints entered the 2010 NCAA DII Softball Championship with a perfect record, this year’s squad enters Salem, Va., with a 52-10 mark.
“I think the biggest challenge for us this year has been facing the expectations,” Davenport said. “Every time these kids have turned the corner, there have been comparisons to last year. Even a couple weeks back, we had lost nine games to that point, and they had kids in class and folks around the community saying ‘what’s wrong with you guys?’
“The expectations were extremely high, but they’ve faced all of those expectations and challenges head on. This team had the challenge of finding its own identity and it probably wasn’t until the middle of March when we started to figure things out. Once we did that, things started to roll our way.”
With the exception of an opening-day Super Regional loss to Lenoir-Rhyne, North Georgia has rolled through postseason play. The Saints captured a third consecutive Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year,” Phillips said. “Having the team that I’m playing with, the camaraderie that we have as a team, and especially the three pitchers. We joke around and people make fun of us, but we just embrace it. We do our own thing at practice, we’re always out in the bullpen, just the three of us together all the time. We joke that we’re pitchers, we do everything together.”
That togetherness and the versatility of a true pitching staff will be on display at the James I. Moyer Complex this weekend.