University of North Georgia right-handed pitcher Dylan Peppers hesitated to use the word ‘perfectly’ when talking about the way the Nighthawks’ baseball season has gone this year. He finally settled on the word though, deciding there was no other way to describe it.
“It’s kind of been a crazy season,” Peppers said. “We’ve had ups and downs, but even on our downs we’ve beaten people. So that kind of showed us, even when you’re not playing your best, if you can still win it shows how good of a team you truly are.”
The No. 6 Nighthawks went 40-8 during the regular season, recording less than 10 losses for the first time in the program’s history. They went on to win the Southeast Regional Tournament and are now headed to the program’s first NCAA Division II Baseball Championship Tournament, starting today in Grand Prairie, Texas.
In the Southeast Regional Tournament, North Georgia beat No. 30 Catawba College after freshman catcher Andres Perez hit his seventh home run of the season in the bottom of the eighth inning. Once the final out was caught in left field during the ninth inning, everything finally began to sink in for the Nighthawks.
The team had just made history.
“There were a lot of happy tears that went on right after the ball was caught,” said Peppers, who was the starting pitcher in the game and was named Tournament MVP. “We dogpiled and all that good stuff. You know, it was a surreal moment for sure.”
While Peppers had an impressive start against Catawba, striking out seven over six innings, Lumpkin County High graduate, Daniel McCrary, will get the start on the mound against No. 21 West Chester University in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” said McCrary, who is 10-1 and holds a 2.13 ERA. “A little nervousness. It’s a big stage, but I think overall we’re excited for the opportunity.”
The nervousness may come from the fact that it’s more challenging to form a game plan against a team that isn’t in your conference, or even nearby. West Chester University, which is in suburban Philadelphia, and North Georgia have never played before.
But it was only about 30 minutes after Nighthawks coach Tom Cantrell breathed a sigh of relief and recovered from being mobbed by his coaching staff after beating Catawba that he found out who the team would be playing in the first round of the tournament. That’s where the scouting for West Chester(40-11) began.
“We’ll get enough information,” said Cantrell, who is in his 18th season as head coach at UNG. “I mean, all the information you can get without seeing somebody play. Then you have to trust what you do versus what they do and kind of figure it out through the first part of the game.”
Trusting what his team does is the easy part.
Cantrell has done that all year. Even as the season started, he knew this team could be the one to make it this far.
They’re an older, more experienced group with many of them having been a part of the 2015 team that lost in the Southeast Regional Championship.
Although he says he didn’t necessarily expect to make it this far, Cantrell was confident in the team he was fielding from the start and his players couldn’t agree more. Once they started seeing success after winning 16 of their first 20 games, an NCAA Tournament berth suddenly seemed attainable.
“At the beginning of the year, on paper, we were probably one of the best teams to ever come through North Georgia,” Peppers said. “But until you really match up and get out on to the field together, you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. But I think about midway through the season, we realized we could go the full way and go the distance.”
For a program that was relaunched in 2000, this will be a season to remember. Cantrell believes it’s because they have all of the right pieces. From the players, to the team chemistry, to the coaching staff and even the team’s athletic trainer, this is a team Cantrell won’t soon forget.
“This is special for North Georgia and where we’re headed and I couldn’t be happier,” Cantrell said. “This has been a great group of guys, and they’ve been fun to coach. It’s just been a special year.”