Posted: Thursday, May 20th 2010 at 9:21am
North Georgia softball no stranger to success
By Morgan Lee Editor
DAHLONEGA -- North Georgia College and State University softball is experiencing the kind of season record books are made of.
The No. 1-ranked Lady Saints are 48-0 and two wins removed from their second straight NCAA Division II College World Series -- not too shabby for a program that was created just 13 years ago.
But this is no flash in the pan. And despite its recent ascension to the top of Division II, North Georgia has a proud history.
“We’ve been getting more recognition of late, but back before we moved up into Division II, we won four straight conference titles at the NAIA level,” coach Mike Davenport said. “We’ve always been competitive.”
Indeed, since taking over the team at the start of the millennium, Davenport has piled up 409 wins. And when the school made the move into the NCAA just five years ago, its softball program did so with a minimum of hiccups.
“I feel like we’ve developed a program the university can be proud of,” said Davenport, who came to Dahlonega 14 years ago as an assistant women’s basketball coach.
When Davenport first joined the staff at North Georgia, the softball program was under the leadership of coach Ricky Sanders.
“He started it at the grass roots level,” Davenport said of Sanders. “They were playing at a Park and Rec field back then, in fact it was field five.”
But Sanders oversaw the Lady Saints move to their own facility behind the campus 11 years ago -- the same field that the now two-year-old Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium was constructed around -- before leaving for a Division I job.
Sanders’ move paved the way for Davenport, who was approached by the North Georgia athletic department as a potential replacement.
“I had played junior college baseball and realized I had little future as a player,” said Davenport, who gave up playing and transferred to Oklahoma State, where he became a student manager, learning at the feet of Cowboys baseball coach Gary Ward. “I learned a lot from him. And I also learned watching coach Sanders here.”
Yet Davenport did a lot of heavy thinking before leaving the Lady Saints basketball program to take over the softball team.
“I walked the trail out here behind the softball stadium for probably two-three weeks straight until I made up my mind,” Davenport said. “But I saw a lot of potential here.”
It’s potential that Davenport began to tap almost immediately and did so by recruiting regionally and emphasizing not so much the team but the school.
Building For Success
Davenport realized pretty quickly that to be successful, he didn’t have to criss-cross the nation searching for players. What he needed was in his own backyard.
“There’s good high school coaching and great travel ball coaching in Georgia,” Davenport said. “There’s a lot of talent in this state. And scholarship money goes a lot farther by staying right here.”
There’s been an added bonus as well, as a team made up almost entirely of Georgia-grown players has helped create a strong atmosphere at Hill Stadium.
Davenport also emphasizes North Georgia’s academic advantages.
“The only thing I guarantee to prospective players is that they’re going to a great education here,” Davenport said. “We’re doing the right things here; we’re graduating kids and ensuring they get a great education.”
They’re also getting great exposure at the top levels of fast-pitch collegiate softball -- which Davenport says is due in large part to a mixture of talent, desire and the right mental make-up.
“These kids will run through walls for you,” Davenport said. “Of course you have to have talent to be successful, but these kids have created a true family atmosphere, and they feed off each other. Our success comes from the people we have here and their hard work.”
That mixture put the Lady Saints on the Division II map in their first campaign eligible for the postseason (North Georgia had to play through two years as a provisional program before joining as a full member). And in 2008, the Lady Saints were just one win removed from their first College World Series, falling 1-0 in the South Atlantic Regional Tournament Championship.
“We had 10 freshmen that year, and I thought we were a little early to be that far,” Davenport said. “Of course that was great thing for us, and we continued to get better.”
A wiser Lady Saints team pushed through to the World Series in 2009, going 1-2 at the tournament in Salem, Va., setting up this year’s dominating campaign.
“When you get there the first time, there’s always a doubt in your head because you haven’t been there before,” Davenport said. “But after that you settle down and just focus on playing to your ability.”
Storming Into 2010
So far this season, that ability has been nearly untouchable, as the Lady Saints cruised through the regular season, Peach Belt Conference tournament and first round of the NCAA Regionals.
“This team is so much more mature,” Davenport said. “They’ve been through the ringer, and they know when it’s time to play and when it’s time to relax.”
Opposing batters haven’t relaxed much this season while facing North Georgia ace Sarah Phillips – the only player on the team not from Georgia (though she did grow up in Marietta before moving to Ohio).
The junior right-hander leads the nation with a 41-0 record, while recording a 0.81 earned run average. She has 36 complete games, a mark that leads the nation, while striking out 263 batters in 268 innings of work.
“She’s the kind of kid you want on your team,” Davenport said. “She does anything to help the team, and she’s hungry to learn. She’s still not satisfied with herself, and she really works her craft. And the great thing is that there’s no ego involved.”
Phillips is surrounded by an extremely capable defense, including redshirt freshman first baseman Katherine Martin.
“If there’s a better defensive first baseman out there, I’d like to see her,” Davenport said. “Sarah (Phillips) is not an overpowering, strikeout after strikeout pitcher, so our defense has been key this season. We’ve also got a great offense supporting her.”
The Lady Saints’ offense features five players batting over .300, led by Lauren Dykes at .391, while Leslee Smith leads the squad with 12 home runs and 54 RBIs.
Smith is one of four seniors on the team that has played a key role throughout her time in Dahlonega.
“She took over the designated hitter role midway through her freshman year and just continues to hit and hit for power,” Davenport said.
Fellow seniors Jessica Skeels (outfield), Courtney McGuire (oufield) and Laura Voyles (infield) have also led the way for a team that Davenport says doesn’t even talk about its incredible winning streak.
“They’ve never once mentioned it,” Davenport said. “They know it’s there, and they know people are talking about it, but it’s not important to them. They just want to go out there and continue to fight and play as hard as they can.”
Nor do the Lady Saints talk much of championships.
“Titles aren’t something we’re looking at,” Davenport said. “As long as we play hard and max out our potential, I can live with the results.”
North Georgia will look to play its best against Lenoir-Rhyne (53-7) this weekend, as the Super Regionals get underway on Friday in Dahlonega. First pitch in the best-of-three series is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday. Game 2 is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday, with the “if” game to follow.
Yet if the results continue like they have so far this season, the Lady Saints will certainly be talking about championships at some point -- like where the latest trophy might be displayed.
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