When you think of competitive southeast softball one of the first teams you think of is North Georgia. With North Georgia for 20 seasons and holding the head softball spot for the last 17 years, head coach Mike Davenport has seen a wave of success to the Nighthawks program over the last 2 decades. Coach Davenport entered the season with a 705-200 (.779) record and has guided the team to six 50 win seasons earning him 6 selections as Peach Belt Coach of the Year six times.
In 2015 the Nighthawks claimed their first National Championship coming back from the losers bracket. Over his career, Coach Davenport has accumulated 11 regular season conference championships, and 9 conference tournament championships. After serving two years of probation when entering the NCAA from the NAIA, North Georgia has made the NCAA tournament 9 years straight years, reaching the Super Regional 7 of those times and the World Series 4 times.
Coach Davenport also served as head coach for NPF USSSA Florida Pride in 2015 leading them to a Regular Season title and an appearance in the championship series against the Chicago Bandits. Coach Davenport is married to his wife, Melanie, and is the proud parent to daughter, Margaret and son, Michael.
This season Coach Davenport has led the Nighthawks to a 36-10 record with 5 games left on the schedule. North Georgia has half a game lead in the Peach Belt over Armstrong State in the standings and is looking to claim their 4th straight regular season championship. As a team the Nighthawks are hitting .309 with 46 homeruns putting them in the top 10 with total homeruns and homeruns per game in NCAA DII. North Georgia’s pitching staff has a 1.61 which is 10th best in NCAA DII and first in the southeast.
The Down South staff reached out to Coach Davenport about his Nighthawks, below is our Q&A with Coach Davenport.
Q. This season has been a series of ups and downs for the Nighthawks. How has your team dealt with the downs this season and have you and your coaching staff changed any way you have coached them during this time?
We graduated seven very good players and team leaders in 2016. Going into the 2017 season we knew it would be a good challenge for our program to have a successful season. Losing softball talent is one thing, but losing experienced players that have been in our program for their college careers, their experience and ability to lead the inexperienced players has been what we have missed most. But, that is part of college athletics and it has challenged us this season to incorporate our programs ideas, expectations and work ethic into this team. I think as coaches we often “under-value” leadership WITHIN the team, because in the end…it is the players who play.
As far as coaching, I don’t feel we have changed the way we have coached them this season. We have found ourselves stressing the little things more because of so much inexperience to the DII game and to North Georgia softball.
Q. With the loss of your pitching ace last season, Courtney Poole, you had a big hole in your pitching staff. However, freshman Kylee Smith has rolled right into the #1 spot. Did you expect Kylee to have this season in her freshman year and how has she grown over the course of this year?
I am extremely proud of what our pitching staff as a whole has been able to do this season. They compliment each other very well and are hungry to learn the college game. They have improved tremendously since they came to campus in August.
Kylee (Smith) is our Greg Maddux – her success comes from her command and ability to throw a lot of different pitches at different times in the count. She is very poised to be so new to the college game. We are excited to continue to watch her develop during her career.
Q. Stephanie Hartness continues to be amazing this season, but you have some new faces putting up big numbers. Are there any surprises on offensive production from your roster this season?
Steph (Hartness) has been so consistent for us because of her preparation for the game of softball. She works extremely hard and puts in a lot of extra time. She puts in more time working in areas that she doesn’t feel are her strengths and that’s what makes her successful. If she fails or struggles at any aspect of the game, she will immediately put in extra work in order to improve her game.
Some of our younger players have really stepped up for us this season and we had to have that happen. They have been thrown into the college game without much past experience, which is the same for some of our returning players, and both groups have been very consistent with each at bat, giving us a chance to win most of the games we have played this season.
Q. Your team started the conference schedule 7-4 and sitting in 4th place, but since then you have gone a perfect 8-0 in conference series including a big series sweep over Young Harris to claim the top spot in the standings. What has been the biggest part of the latest conference win streak?
The Peach Belt is, and always will be, an absolute grind. But that’s what makes it fun. When you choose to play at a PBC school you are signing up for competitive games that can help prepare you for postseason play. Our strength of non-conference schedule has hopefully prepared our team to compete at the PBC level and I think recently they have figured out that there are no “off days” on our schedule and in this league.
Q. You have 5 conference games over 5 days, including the Easter Holiday, against 3 dangerous PBC teams. Holding your own destiny now as possible regular season champs and tournament #1 seed, how do you keep your team motivated to finish the season strong?
Our goal each season is to put yourself in a position to be successful, that is all we can control. We will approach our “next” game just like game one of the season, that is all we can control anyways.
Q. What advice do you give young girls who are looking to play softball at the college level?
My advice for young athletes is to “LEARN” the game…. Recently it appears that often times the young athletes “reason” to play the game is to obtain a scholarship. This is the wrong reason to play the game, because we miss so many of the details of the game that make it so special and that can help them to be the best player they can. We are spending too much time and too much money “getting” our younger players a scholarship instead of “teaching” our younger players “how” to play the game.
If we always do this with constant feedback and instruction, then our athletes don’t have the freedom to fail, and with failure comes growth. We grow as a player and as a team after we lose, but if we set up our youth sports where they “can’t lose” then our athletes expect it to be that way in college and it’s not. If you don’t perform on the field or in the classroom you will not succeed, and that’s okay, but if you have the ability to get back up and compete, you can become successful again.
The Nighthawks have a tough end of the schedule playing 5 games over the next 5 days. North Georgia will have Georgia Southwestern and Columbus State in two conference series at home back to back on Friday and Saturday respectively. Then the Nighthawks will travel to Montevallo in Alabama on Tuesday to make up 1 game against the Falcons that was rained out earlier in the season. Winning out assures North Georgia their 4th consecutive regular season championship and the #1 seed in the PBC tournament. The Peach Belt tournament will be played next weekend on April 21-22 at Gerogia College.