Kylee Smith and her University of North Georgia softball teammates have a vivid reminder of what they’re chasing every time they hit the field at Haines and Carolyn Hill Stadium in Dahlonega. Each day, they walk by the short brick wall down the right-field line bearing the words “2015 NCAA National Champions.”
“I want that. That’s just a big reminder, a big motivation piece,” Smith said. “We just get so competitive, and we all want it.”
Smith and her fellow Nighthawks start the 2019 season at 4 p.m. Friday against the University of West Alabama, part of a seven-game opening weekend in Gulf Shores, Alabama. North Georgia’s softball program was the preseason pick to win the Peach Belt Conference for the ninth time in 11 seasons. All eight of those previous title seasons have included regular-season and tournament crowns.
In 2018, the Lady Nighthawks won a program-record 62 games in returning to the NCAA Division II Championship for the first time since its 2015 national title.
“If we can get back now, the majority of this program will have understood what it takes to compete at that level,” said softball coach Mike Davenport, who is entering his 19th season.
Smith, a junior pitcher from Suwanee, was the 2018 Schutt Sports/National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) DII National Player of the Year and PBC Pitcher of the Year. She’s also a two-time first-team NFCA All-American selection.
The opening weekend features tilts against the likes of West Alabama, Valdosta State, Montevallo, and Shorter. The NFCA Leadoff Classic, set for Feb. 8-10, includes matchups with Lenoir-Rhyne University, Harding University, Hillsdale College, Azusa Pacific University, and California University of Pennsylvania. Davenport said those first two weekends are offering great preparation for PBC play.
Kaylyn Anthony, a junior outfielder from Hoschton, said the North Georgia softball program is always
seeking to improve in pursuit of championships.
“Expectations are always high here, and we know that going into it,” Anthony said. “But that’s just part of who we are. We all love the competition, and we love just being out here.”
Smith, Anthony, junior catcher Shelby Hammontree, and sophomore outfielder Hobby Gregory were all selected to the preseason All-PBC team.
Meanwhile, the North Georgia baseball team is hoping its youth movement in 2018 led to experience that could yield a potential return to its 2017 form, when it reached the NCAA Division II Championship. Nighthawks coach Tom Cantrell starts his 20th season as his team begins a three-game series at Florida Tech at 6 p.m. Friday.
A celebration of 20 years of the baseball program is set for Feb. 9, when North Georgia hosts Palm Beach Atlantic at 1 p.m. in the second of a three-game series, Feb. 8-10. The program will introduce former players in attendance before the first pitch, and throughout the game the athletic department will share memorable moments from North Georgia’s past 20 years of baseball.
Cantrell’s team started 4-8 a year ago while regularly starting six freshmen before winning 27 of its final 41 games, securing victories in almost 66 percent of the contests during that closing stretch. This year’s group will have to adjust to the absence of power hitter Andres Perez, who suffered a season-ending injury. A preseason Southeast Region All-American and All-PBC Conference selection, the catcher launched a program-record 23 home runs and 68 RBI in 2018.
“Somebody else has to step up,” Cantrell said. “This program is not built on one person. When something bad happens, it’s an opportunity for someone else.”
Redshirt sophomore relief pitcher Parker Morrison joined Perez as a preseason All-PBC honoree.
Redshirt senior pitcher Daniel McCrary, who is a Lumpkin County High graduate, sat out last season with an injury. He wasn’t surprised to see his teammates notch seven victories against ranked teams and come close to even more signature wins.
“It’s not a stage that’s scary for a lot of the guys here. We’ve been to the NCAA Division II Championship,” McCrary said. “Coach schedules the top competition every year. We thrive on that.”
Similarly, this year’s baseball team will face Florida Tech, Palm Beach Atlantic, Southern Indiana, and the University of Tampa in non-conference tests.
Sophomore pitcher Cade Heil said he and his classmates learned a lot in their first year with the Nighthawks.
“We all know how to prepare ourselves better every day,” Heil said.
Even in the midst of that group’s first season on campus, Cantrell was impressed.
“The program grew and showed signs of what it could be going forward,” Cantrell said.