Flowery Branch graduate Julianne Sutton and the University of North Georgia girls basketball team were in Greenwood, S.C. for the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional when they got the text from head coach Buffie Burson.
“We need to have a team meeting.”
Sutton and her teammates had been following the national reaction to the accelerating spread of coronavirus, and they knew what Burson was going to say. The Southeast Regional — and the rest of the postseason beyond it — had been canceled.
The message was expected, but the team was still unprepared to hear it.
“We all just kind of sat in silence for a second, taking it all in, trying to process what had happened and what the coaches had said,” Sutton said. “We were all really disappointed and sad for the season to end that way.”
In an instant, national title dreams of the Lady Nighthawks — ranked No. 21 in the country — were erased. After reaching the quarterfinals of the Division II Championship a year ago, North Georgia would not have a chance to advance any further.
What’s worse, the team — which ends its season with a 26-5 record — finished the year with a Peach Belt Conference Championship loss to Lander that it will not have a chance to avenge.
“I think that’s one reason why we were all so disappointed,” Sutton said. “We didn’t get to go out how we wanted to get out. We kind of had to go out with that loss and have that in the back of our minds as that was the last game we played. I think that’s why it hurt so bad.”
But there is a silver lining for the Lady Nighthawks, which the team has been focusing on throughout the past couple of weeks. The North Georgia roster is without seniors, so the entire squad could be back in the fall.
No one was happy with this year’s abrupt finish, but there is still plenty to look forward to.
“I think that’s something that we’ve all kind of taken into consideration, something we’ve all been preaching to each other to help console us through this tough time,” Sutton said. “If we can prepare for next year and next season, we can do all the things that we wanted to do that we didn’t get to do.”
For now, all Sutton and her teammates can do is stay positive and get in any individual work they can to keep their skills sharp and ready for next year.
With all the success North Georgia has had over the past couple seasons and with the entire team returning for the 2021 season, Sutton believes the squad will come back stronger than ever.
The Lady Nighthawks were already a national contender this year, but by next March, Sutton thinks they will be a force to be reckoned with.
“People will be scared to play North Georgia next season,” she said.
“I hope we put in the work this offseason. I hope we get some time. Hopefully everything will re-open. We will put in the work to be the team that people are scared of next season.”