Revenge can be served cold, but Friday it was served on the hot-afternoon turf of Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium with a side of elimination. As the nationally No. 1 ranked UNG softball team advances to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Divison II softball tournament, they have a chance to once again strike revenge.
UNG’s softball team took a 56-2 record into the NCAA Southeast Regional play, the best by both amount of wins and winning percentage in school history. The Nighthawks were able to square up with one of only two teams to beat them all season in Game 2 of the week, as Coker College fell into the Southeast region bracket with North Georgia before falling on the field to North Georgia 6-0 and then later being knocked out of the tournament by King University. UNG went on to beat King the next day, sending the team on to Super Regionals, where they will host the only other team to put an L on the Nighthawks’ record, Young Harris.
“It definitely means more,” sophomore pitcher Kylee Smith said.”They have taken a win from us, so I think it lights a fire under us even more to want to get out there and win and beat them.”
The Nighthawks continued to look like the dominant team they’ve been all season, outscoring their opponents 20-3 over the three games necessary to advance into the Super Regional. The pitching tandem of Smith and Amber Johns also continued to dominate, allowing only five hits across the three games.
“For us it’s just business as usual,” head coach Mike Davenport said. “Every time we are on the field we want to take it as an opportunity to get better, whether it’s in February or the end of March or this time of year where it’s postseason play. I think it’s important that we continue to strive to get better and try to perfect this game as much as we can before it ends.”
Davenport seems to have his team peaking at the perfect time as the Nighthawks are one of only 16 teams remaining in postseason play and with two wins this week will punch their ticket to Salem, Virginia for the NCAA Division II Softball National Championship.
“I think they’ve grown, and it’s tough to keep this level of consistency and success that they’ve done for so long through 61 games, and that takes a lot of focus when you take everybody’s best shot, especially later in the season when you start having success and people start circling you on the schedule,” Davenport said.
Offensively, the Nighthawks are hot at the plate, as all nine starters got at least one hit in Regional play while nearly half the lineup had hits in all three games.
“If you can build a lineup of 15 good hitters that you can pick the hottest nine, it gives you a huge advantage and I think for us right now we’ve got probably about 12 deep right now that I feel very confident in going to,” Davenport said. “Our bench came off and gave us some really good at bats today with Kristen Adkins and Kali Turner that have kind of been waiting their turn and if we can add that weapon to our arsenal late in ball games, that gives us just another option to maybe bank some runs in.”
Adkins has played a huge role for the Nighthawks as a pinch hitter late in the season, swinging a .600 average in 10 pinch hit appearances since the beginning of April.
In the circle, UNG has had the most dynamic pitching duo in the country with an NCAA leading ERA of .96. Smith and Johns rank first and third respectively in the nation in individual ERA as two of only five pitchers in the country with less an ERA of less than one run while UNG is the only team in the nation with a less than one run combined ERA. Davenport explained the strategy he employed in Regional play, using Smith as a starter and Johns to close out games.
“Kylee [Smith] spins the ball extremely well and then AJ’s [pitch] is probably a little bit harder and a heavier ball and I think late in the game when they’re kind of sitting and trying to figure out Kylee’s spin you can come in a little bit harder with Amber’s stuff and Amber has some good offspeed as well, it just gives them a different look for us,” Davenport said.
And when UNG is scoring runs in large quantities as they did in the beginning of the NCAA tournament last week, it gives the strongest pitching staff in the country even more confidence.
“It’s pretty cool to watch your teammates go out there and just do what we know how to do best,” Smith said. “The amount of confidence you get as a pitcher on the mound just watching your teammates just hit gapper after gapper pushing the runs across, it really is the best feeling.”
The Nighthawks have won 17 straight games since they lost to Young Harris and are feeling more confident than ever. All that stand before them and a trip to the National Championship as one of the final eight teams standing are their biggest rivals and the most important installment of the Battle of Blood Mountain in any sport since joining the Peach Belt Conference in 2012.
“We all really want it, to go to Salem, so I think we’re all pretty pumped for it and we’re excited to play,” Smith said.