For the first time this month, the No. 1 ranked Nighthawks found themselves trailing on Friday. After tying the game in the sixth inning, UNG slid into the lead when Hobby Gregory stole home in the top-half of the final inning. Three outs later, the Nighthawks officially punched their ticket to the NCAA Division II Softball Championship in Salem, Virginia.
The UNG softball team defeated Young Harris in two straight games on Thursday and Friday in the Southeast Super Regionals in Dahlonega. Friday’s win, UNG’s 61st of the season, eliminated the only team left in the NCAA tournament who has defeated the Nighthawks this year and added to the winningest record in program history.
“It’s awesome, what they’ve done is historical so far for our program and they’ve done it against some pretty good teams that we’ve put on the field in the past,” head coach Mike Davenport said. “You want them to be able to get to the Elite Eight to see what they can do against some of the best in the country.”
While the Nighthawks are winners of 19 straight games as they head into the Elite Eight on Thursday, the Super Regionals provided a slight test for UNG over the two-game stretch.
“That’s a testament to Young Harris and where their program is and where they’re going,” Davenport said. “They made us earn every single inning and every single out and you wouldn’t want it any other way. You want to be able to grind to get yourself to the championship level and we had to do that for the last two days.”
UNG fell behind 1-0 on a two-out RBI single in the fourth inning. The inning marked the first time the Nighthawks trailed in a game since April 27 against Flagler and the first time UNG pitcher Kylee Smith had given up multiple hits in the same inning since April 20 against Georgia College, who were ranked No. 20 in the nation at the time.
The Nighthawks trailed until Kaylyn Anthony tied the game with a solo home run in the sixth inning. One inning later, Gregory showed off her speed, first by bunting for a hit to lead off the inning. After advancing to second on a sacrifice bunt by Sydney Sprague, she stole third when a wild pitch got by the catcher. Marley Stowers was hit by a pitch later that same at bat, setting up the opportunity the Nighthawks were hoping for with two of their fastest base runners on first and third. Davenport called a time out and relayed the plan to his team. On the next pitch, Stowers broke for second, drawing a throw across the field which opened the door for Gregory to steal home. However, Young Harris was ready, cutting off the throw and delivering a strike to the plate, where the umpire ruled the close play-at-the plate as obstruction by the catcher and that Gregory was safe.
When the UNG defense came back out to defend its lead for the last half inning, one Nighthawk felt the need for redemption in the form of making the final out that would send her team to Virginia.
“I knew the ball was going to find me that last inning and I knew I had to make a play, and I did,” senior Brittany Gilliam said.
Gilliam, normally a prolific hitter for the Nighthawks, ranking second on the team in RBI and walks, went 0-4 at the plate on Friday, but was steady as ever in the field, making several plays with her glove throughout the course of the game, including the out that solidified the Nighthawks’ spot in the Elite Eight.
“You want it so bad for the kids and you want them to experience success,” Davenport said. “Sometimes when you see them kind of beating themselves up you want to get that figured out as fast as you can and I think for her there’s no one we would rather them hit that ground ball to than her to finish the game.”
“I’m just glad I came through for my team in that moment because they had my back the whole game,” Gilliam said. “Not the best game by me, so I wanted it to find me, I wanted to have that moment.”
The 2018 UNG softball team already owns the school record for most wins in a season with 61, breaking the old record of 54 during the Peach Belt Conference tournament on May 5.
“I think it’s amazing what our team has accomplished, we’ve won 61 games,” Gilliam said. “We only lost two but even if we’d lost more than that we won 61 and not many teams can say that. I think we’re going to compete very well in Virginia.”
The Nighthawks are now just five wins away from claiming their second NCAA national championship in program history, but those wins will have to come against the best teams in the country to make that dream a reality. Coach Davenport feels confident that while his team has accomplished a lot already, they aren’t finished yet.
“Next week it’s 0-0,” Davenport said. “None of these teams have faced each other across the board so I think you have an opportunity now to just go and showcase what you guys have and let it ride.”
UNG will continue their record-breaking 2018 campaign at the NCAA Division II Softball Championship this Thursday, when they take on the University of Southern Indiana.