Keeping the tradition alive
North Georgia’s Coan following in footsteps of assistant coach
North Georgia head coach Mike Davenport had never coached softball before taking over the Saints’ program in 2000, but it didn’t take him long to realize that having a really good pitcher in the circle gave his team a better chance to win.
Davenport had stints playing and coaching junior college baseball before becoming an assistant women’s basketball coach at North Georgia in 1996. Four years later, he became the head softball coach at the school and quickly learned nuances of the game, building the program into a national contender at the NAIA level.
In 2006, the school transitioned to NCAA Division II, but it did not take Davenport’s squad a lot of time to raise their game. The Saints advanced to the NCAA Division II Championship in 2009, just four years after making the transition. It was no fluke. North Georgia accomplished the feat again in 2010 and made it three consecutive trips in 2011.
The one constant throughout Davenport’s tenure at North Georgia? Great pitching.
In each of the last two seasons, North Georgia players -- Sarah Phillips and Jessica Coan -- have garnered Ron Lentz National Pitcher of the Year honors, while accumulating a plethora of All-America and Peach Belt Conference honors and records.
This year, Coan is working towards continuing that trend as Phillips serves as a graduate assistant on Davenport’s coaching staff.
Phillips put North Georgia on the map as a Division II pitching power, collecting a Peach Belt Conference-record 124 victories during her four-year career. The two-time NFCA First Team All-America pick led the Saints to their first NCAA Division II Championship appearance in 2009, and then strung together 44 consecutive wins in 2010 to help her team return to the national tournament.
Coan entered the picture last season, transferring from Georgia Tech to create a “two-headed monster” with Phillips that would advance to the NCAA Division II College World Series for the third year in a row.
“All of our pitchers have been very unselfish,” Davenport said. “It’s definitely a team attitude between the coach, pitcher and catcher. All of the pitchers have been so hungry.”
And while Phillips is no longer in the circle, she and Coan are still working together to keep North Georgia in contention.
“[Sarah’s] been there and through it all,” Coan said. “She went to two World Series' and she knows what we’re going through. It is nice for our pitching staff to be able to talk to someone who was in our shoes just a year ago. We’ve spent a lot of time in the bullpen together. She knows how I pitch and certain tidbits about me and can usually help me if I’m struggling.”
“I feel like the program has grown so much since I started here … we’ve made huge strides,” Phillips said. “Since I’m on the other side of it now, I feel like can help the team succeed and play to the best of their abilities.”
Phillips earned a spot on the Canadian National Team last year, playing internationally in the 2011 Scotiabank Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championship and US World Cup of Softball VI.
“Sarah is our first athlete that has played beyond college,” Davenport said. “It is a huge honor for her and for us. I think that helped her mature a little bit -- playing against some best in the world. She’s brought some of that back to us.”
Phillips was thrilled for the opportunity to work with Davenport in a different capacity this year.
“I jumped on it,” Phillips said. “He’s so knowledgeable … he’s one of the best in Division II softball. Having the opportunity to learn from as an understudy to him in addition to being one of his players was great … not many people have the chance to play for and coach with him.”
So far, Phillips' insight and Coan’s talent have been a winning combination for the Saints. They are off to a 19-3 start and are ranked No. 4 in the NFCA Division II Top 25. Coan is 11-3 with a 0.66 ERA and 10.91 strikeouts per seven innings.
“[Coan] has a great work ethic and wants to get better every day,” Phillips said. “She is knowledgeable about the game and the hitters she faces and their tendencies. She’s doing better this year at the beginning of the season than last year, which is hard to believe.”
“What Jess did last year was incredible, and right now she is surpassing that,” Davenport said. “She gives us a chance to win every single ball game.”