It started off as a mindless hobby, just a simple game to keep occupied during rain delays.
After a program-record 54 wins, a second straight Peach Belt conference title and a breathless run through the softball College World Series, the University of North Georgia Nighthawks looked back on their routine game of hacky sack as a symbol for the close bond they shared en route to earning the school’s first-ever national championship.
“At first, it was there for us to relax,” said junior third baseman Ansley Phillips. “But it became a tradition from then on, for us to know we’re playing together and enjoy ourselves out there.”
Mike Davenport’s North Georgia team (54-8), made up entirely of Georgia natives, rattled off four consecutive wins last week in Oklahoma City to sweep the loser’s bracket and defeat Dixie State to bring the Division II softball national championship home to Dahlonega.
These days, some of the Nighthawks’ star players are still looking back in awe at their historic season, which ended in a party atmosphere with nearly 200 fans back at Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium as the team bus rolled back into town.
“We’ve had so much support from the UNG community, Dahlonega, Lumpkin County, people who enjoy watching us play and compete,” said Davenport. “The biggest sentiment I get from folks is that they’re proud of the program. These kids are national-title winners, but all of our fans share a part in this.”
Led by ace pitcher and 2015 NFCA Schutt Sports National Player of the Year Courtney Poole (47-4, 0.98 ERA), the Nighthawks won the most games in a single season (53) and held batters to an average of .182 at the plate. Poole, a rising senior, has helped UNG win back-to-back Peach Belt Conference titles. She allowed just three earned runs in three straight games to send her team through to last month’s Southeast Regional with home field advantage.
The Nighthawks turned to their bats for help in the Super Regional, where Tiffanie Burns used a walk-off grand slam in the 12th inning against conference rival Georgia College to help send North Georgia to their fourth trip to the D-II softball championship in Oklahoma City.
Burns, who will be working over the summer at an automotive facility in Duluth, had to tell her new bosses that she would have to start work later than she had originally intended.
“When we first started the interview, we were in the regionals, and I had to tell them, ‘I’ll let you know how the weekend goes,’” said Burns, who graduated last month. “Then, I had to call them to say we’re going to Supers. Then I told them, ‘Well, it looks like we’re going all the way!’”
The team was together on every step of the ride, according to Phillips. All of the girls got along well as each win became more and more crucial. The Nighthawks would often get dinner with each other and their families. Second baseman Meredith Heyer would often retrieve a colorful hacky sack ball from her training bag to help loosen up the team before big games or during rain spells.
“Sometimes, even the coaches started playing with us,” said Poole. “It was always a fun time to be with us before a game.”
Many of the players would talk in the huddles about how they needed to play for the fans, some of whom travelled more than 900 miles to be in Oklahoma City with the team.
The road trip didn’t begin well. Morgan Foley put together a no-hitter for the University of Indianapolis against North Georgia in the opening game, putting the Nighthawks in a win-or-go-home scenario for the rest of the tournament.
“We were very disappointed,” said Burns. “Our first time coming to the World Series and be no-hit, it was almost devastating. But we had a talk without the coaches on the bus. We just had to say, ‘It happened, let’s move past it and fight until we couldn’t fight any more.’”
Davenport, who had stayed at the stadium to scout the next game, said his team took each elimination playoff game just as seriously as a February regular-season tussle. He joked that he had to fire his hitting coach (himself) after the opening game, and then told his team to focus on playing smart softball, rather than worry about going home early.
“Our kids were very relaxed through postseason play,” he said. “The arena was bigger and the stakes were higher, but the kids responded to it.”
Burns provided just the spark North Georgia needed when she provided the Nighthawks’ first hit of the tournament in the first game against No. 7 St. Mary’s (Texas), a towering solo homer to left field that would help wrestle back a 1-0 deficit. The senior then smacked a two-run bomb over center to help beat Adelphi later that day, with Poole pitching a two-hit shutout.
“We were going to fight until someone took the jersey from us,” said Burns, who finished with seven hits in six games in Oklahoma City. “We don’t go down easily. This team wasn’t going to leave Oklahoma until we gave it absolutely everything we could.”
From then on, North Georgia was all-out attack, dinging up Shorter University for 21 hits in the semifinal series as the Nighthawks advanced to their first-ever national title game. And Poole was dominant as ever to shut out finalist Dixie State, which earned just two hits against the right-hander. She topped the efforts of her one of her own coaches, Sarah Phillips, who had previously held North Georgia’s single-season win record (44).
Records and statistics all fell away when Ansley Phillips stepped on the bag at third to record the final out, sparking a celebratory dogpile on the third-base line.
The Nighthawks, bound by a single goal, had won a national title together.
“It goes back to how we’re all a family, no matter in the dugout, or cheering each other on,” said Phillips. “Just that we’re all there for each other, fighting to win, playing for each other.”
Davenport, who congratulated his fans in Dahlonega at last week’s impromptu late-night pep rally, is spending his summer in Orlando, Fla., where he’ll coach the USSSA Pride, a professional fast-pitch softball team.
He said that he’s heard from “about 80 percent” of his previous players from the past 15 years as a head coach with the Nighthawks, congratulating this year’s team on its achievements. Davenport said the team will likely remember its charmed playoff run for many years to come.
“I stepped to the back of the dugout to watch these kids enjoy what they’ve accomplished, and it was so great,” he said. “That’s why we coach, to get them their journey and those memories, from alumni No. 1 to the freshmen.”