The North Georgia Nighthawks came into the 2015 season on the heels of an historic season. They not only are the reigning national champions in softball, but they brought home the first National Championship in any sport in school history.
They came into the 2016 ranked No. 1 in the Preseason NFCA Poll, another first in the program’s DII history.
“I don't believe there is any added pressure,” UNG Head Coach Mike Davenport said. “These kids hopefully come to UNG with the opportunity to wear the North Georgia uniform with the understanding that they want to compete at the highest level regardless of what the teams prior to them have accomplished. We continue to challenge them with the schedule each season, which will hopefully prepare them for the highest level of DII softball.”
The year didn't start as planned. The Nighthawks went into the Peach Belt/ Gulf South Southern Showdown and dropped all four of their games that weekend, including back-to-back losses to ranked teams, falling to No. 18 UAH and No. 6 Valdosta State.
“The Southern Showdown was set up to be a great opportunity for our kids, but our program did not represent us in this event like we had hoped,” Davenport said. “It is important that any student-athlete have an understanding that playing college athletics is a Privilege, not a Right. We continue to stress to our players that we want them to honor and respect those that have played the game before them.”
Despite beginning their title defense on the losing side of the box score, UNG was able to walk away with some positives. One of the takeaways from that opening weekend Showdown was that freshman pitchers Brianna Michaud and Macy Watkins made their debuts.
“Both our Freshman pitchers were put in an extremely tough situation early in the season,” Davenport said. “Hopefully it is something they can learn from and take the next step in their development as collegiate pitchers. We think a lot of both Macy and Brianna and feel they will have successful college careers here at UNG, but it is part of the process of making adjustments all the way through your college career.”
The Nighthawks made adjustments themselves and changed the course of their season this past weekend. They looked like the team that racked up 54 wins last season. One of those big adjustments was getting senior Courtney Poole back on the mound who would have a dominating weekend. Along with the hot-hitting, FSU transfer Stephanie Hartness, UNG swept through the the five-game Gulf Coast Invitational to climb back above .500.
“The competition was tough at the Gulf Coast Invitational which is what we prepare for each off-season,” Davenport said. “We didn't go in expecting to win five ballgames but were more interested in playing the game as well as we could. When you play great competition your areas of weakness are magnified and we definitely came out of this past weekend with plenty of areas of our game to continue to improve.”
Poole is the lone senior on the pitching staff. The righty put together a remarkable 2015 in which she went 47-4 with a 0.98 ERA and 366 strikeouts across 341.2 innings pitched en route to the NFCA National Player of the Year as well as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award. She once again found herself on the NFCA National Player of the Year Watch List this season, but knew this team would need more than merely her pitching..
“I am a player of few words when I am out on the mound because I am in the zone and nothing can distract me,” Poole said. “I hope to be able to lead with my actions and by always having a positive attitude and having my teammates backs at all times. I want Macy and Bri, as well as the whole team, to see how fun college softball can be as long as you are working hard on a daily basis. If they work hard through every pitch, every practice, and every game I think they have the capability to do big things for this team.
”I want to help this team experience what we experienced last year when we won the World Series, which is going to take hard work and dedication from the whole team.”
Poole dominated this past weekend at the Gulf Coast Invitational. She went 4-0 with three complete games including two consecutive shutouts. In her one appearance in which she did not register a win, she picked up the save.
I was excited, nervous, and sad all at the same time,” Poole said. “It felt good to be back out there with my team, but it was also a bittersweet moment because this is my last season and I don’t want it to end.”
“Courtney did a great job this weekend,” Davenport said. “What has made her so effective is that she has challenged herself each year and not settled on the success she has had the previous season. She understands that at the level we play at if you don't continue to make adjustments throughout your career you will not be successful. She has matured so much since she walked on campus four years ago and it's a pleasure to watch her compete and throw each game.”
Leading the charge offensively thus far has been Hartness. Hartness — who was not on last season’s championship roster — is off to a scorching hot start. She is hitting .577 through nine games, registering 15 hits and seven RBI while scoring a team best eight runs.
“Steph is a by-product of her preparation,” Davenport said of his right fielder. “She brings a great work-ethic to this team and a very mature approach. She maximizes each opportunity she has on the field and in the cages each day in practice and it shows once the games begin. She is a gifted athlete but her approach to the game and its intricacies is what makes her so special.”
Up next for the Nighthawks is their long-awaited home opener. They host the UNG Loyal Blue Classic this coming weekend where they face off against Lindenwood University and University of Charleston.
“I am really excited to play this weekend and hopefully get a few more wins, but I am also excited for all the fans that get to come watch us play,” Poole said. “This is also a bittersweet moment because for us seniors it’s our last first game on our field. I can’t wait to see all of our fans in the stands.”
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO
With three weeks left in the regular season, there are a mere two teams left amongst the undefeated ranks in Women’s Basketball.
Lubbock Christian moved to 20-0 on the season behind consecutive 28-point victories over Oklahoma Christian and Newman. Senior point guard Nicole Hampton led the way, recording a double-double in each victory while taking home the Heartland Conference Player of the Week Award. It is Hampton’s second time achieving the honor this season.
As a team, their 28.5 scoring margin on the season is second in the nation behind No. 1 ranked Alaska-Anchorage at 29.9. They take their big offense into one of the premier Women’s Basketball games of the week as they prepare to square off against UA Fort Smith. Fort Smith — the reigning regular season and HC tournament champions — currently sit at 16-6 overall and at 9-4 are second to the Lady Chaps in the HC.
Limestone also improved to 20-0 on the season with commanding victories of 20 and 31 points this past week. Senior Maurissa Lester took home her second consecutive Conference Carolinas Player of the Week Award after posting her first career double-double on Saturday. She currently averages 15.7 points, second on the team to Jasmine Kearse who is eighth in the nation with a 20.9 scoring average.
Next up for Limestone is a road bout with Pfeiffer and then a home match against Erskine in their quest to stay undefeated. The Saints still have two match-ups with King, who sits in second place in the CC at 12-3.
Falling from the ranks of the undefeated this week was Ashland. The Eagles lost their first game of the season in upset fashion on the road to Walsh. Despite a huge fourth quarter, AU simply ran out of time after Walsh was able to gain separation behind a 21-11 third quarter. They quickly bounced back with a commanding 28 point victory. Laina Snyder led the way with her ninth double-double of the season.