For the first time since 2018, the University of North Georgia softball team is headed to the NCAA Division II championship.
As the No. 4 seed in the Elite Eight, North Georgia will begin the double-elimination event at 3:30 p.m. Thursday against fifth-seeded Biola University in Denver.
The Nighthawks, making their sixth NCAA championship appearance overall, are taking aim at their second national title. North Georgia earned the NCAA Division II crown in 2015.
The Nighthawks (41-6) reached the NCAA championship by overcoming a 5-3 loss to Lincoln Memorial University in the NCAA Southeast Regional and bouncing back for three straight victories in Dahlonega, Georgia. They capped that run May 22 with 4-0 and 3-1 wins against LMU to earn the regional title at Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium at Lynn Cottrell Park.
“I am extremely proud of this team. They have faced more challenges and adversity than any team in our program’s history,” Nighthawks head coach Mike Davenport said. “This team fought for each other all season and once again, was faced with a major challenge on the Friday of the NCAA regional. They were able to rally around it and fight through the losers bracket to win three tough games in a row to earn the right to play in Denver.”
Biola (22-14) is the West Regional champion and is making its first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
The winner between North Georgia and Biola will take on the victor between No. 1 Augustana University and No. 8 Valdosta State on Friday.
The two losers will play in an elimination game Friday.
North Georgia opened the Southeast Regional with a 3-1 triumph against Anderson University on May 20 before LMU tripped up the Nighthawks 5-3 on May 21. North Georgia stayed alive in the tournament with a 5-3 win against Peach Belt Conference (PBC) rival Young Harris College later in the day May 21, before the two victories against LMU on May 22.
Kylee Smith earned the pitching victory in the regional opener for North Georgia, with Laken Chambers pitching all but an inning of the final three wins. Chambers allowed a single run in the 14 innings in the championship Saturday victories against LMU, including a complete-game shutout to force the winner-take-all contest.
Madison Simmons’ two-run home run in the sixth inning proved to be the game-winner for North Georgia in the final game of the Southeast Regional, while Shelby Hammontree’s two-run homer jump-started the Nighthawks in the shutout triumph earlier May 22.
Smith, Hammontree and Kaylyn Anthony all chose to return to North Georgia for a fifth season when the NCAA granted them an extra year of eligibility, due to the 2020 season being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Georgia finished that shortened season ranked No. 3 nationally, leaving a sense of unfinished business.
“We have all committed to get them an opportunity to play for a national championship, and that has been a main goal this year,” Davenport said. “With Kylee, Shelby, and Kaylyn all making the commitment to return last May, we felt like with those three along with our new additions to our roster that this team would have all the pieces to do something special.”