UNG softball's sensational season comes to end in Southeast Regional
The University of North Georgia softball team’s 2019 season was filled with sensational play, tremendous achievements and a ton of individual accolades.
But, when the Nighthawks fell to Young Harris College after forcing a second game with the Mountain Lions in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional finals at Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium on Saturday, May 11, North Georgia’s goal of reaching this year’s softball championship ended along with the team’s season.
The top-seeded Nighthawks opened up the Southeast Regional tournament with a first round matchup versus Lees-McRae College on Thursday, May 9.
North Georgia benefitted from two Bobcat errors in the bottom of the third inning to take a 2-0 advantage over Lees-McRae in the early going of the ballgame.
Peach Belt Conference (PBC) Player of the Year Marley Stowers and her teammate Kaylyn Anthony both scored when the Bobcats committed two errors on the same play in the inning. After a foul out to start the inning, Anthony showed patience at the plate and was rewarded with a walk. Hobby Gregory followed with a foul out to third base for the second out of the inning. Stowers then came to the plate and was able to reach on a fielding error by Lees-McRae’s right fielder. Stowers never stopped running on the play and found herself heading to third base when the Bobcats committed another throwing error, this time by their first baseman. The second error on the same play allowed Anthony and Stowers to score on what easily could have been the third out of the inning.
The two-run gift given to the Nighthawks by the Bobcats’ defense proved enough for North Georgia to pick up a 2-0 first round victory, as UNG starting pitcher and PBC Pitcher of the Year Kylee Smith shut Lees-McRae’s lineup down from the mound.
Smith pitched a one-hit, complete game shutout in the contest. Smith showcased all the tools that earned her the PBC Pitcher of the Year honors this season in the game. Smith started off 19 of the 23 batters she faced with strikes, allowing her to get ahead of the Bobcat hitters throughout the contest. The victory marked the 28th of the season for Smith baffled the Bobcats with pinpoint accuracy and a devastating changeup that had Lees-McRaes’ players swinging but coming up empty throughout the seven-inning affair and recorded eight strikeouts in the win.
The 2-0 victory over Lees-McRae advanced the Nighthawks to the winner’s bracket where they would face off with their bitter rival Young Harris the following day, Friday, May 10.
The Nighthawks and the Mountain Lions battled it out in what turned out to be a spectacular pitching duel between Smith and Young Harris starting pitcher Nikkie Kovalsky.
North Georgia struggled to get any offense going throughout the contest, as Kovalsky retired batter after batter through the first seven inning of the game.
For the Nighthawks, Smith continued to get the upper hand on opposing lineups and tossed seven innings of shutout ball.
With both pitchers on fire, the game was forced into extra innings after neither team was able to put a run on the scoreboard in the first seven innings of the contest.
Two innings later, the Mountain Lions were finally able to get to Smith. After allowing a lead-off walk, Smith gave up a single up the middle off the bat of Emily Harris that gave Young Harris runners at first and second with no outs. Smith hit the next Mountain Lion batter to load the bases. The next Young Harris batter, Grace Botti, ended the game with a walk-off RBI single up the middle when she ripped a 0-2 pitch past the Nighthawks’ infielders.
Kovalsky never gave up a hit in the ballgame and finished the contest with a nine-inning, no-hitter and a huge win for the Mountain Lions. The only Nighthawk baserunner Kovalsky allowed came when the Young Harris pitcher plunked Anthony on the first pitch of the game.
Smith allowed just one run off three hits through her eight innings of work on the bump for North Georgia in the loss. Smith struck out 11 Mountain Lions in the game. The defeat dropped her record to 28-3.
The struggles at the plate for the Nighthawks would prove to be an unwelcomed theme for the Nighthawks for the remainder of the Southeast Regional tournament.
The loss advanced Young Harris to the tournament finals and meant that the Nighthawks would have to play and win another game in order to advance to the finals themselves.
The Nighthawks had a familiar foe when they took to the diamond for their second game on Friday, May 10, against Lees-McRae.
North Georgia had been helped out by a couple Bobcats’ errors in the first round to earn a 2-0 victory, but the second matchup between the two squads would prove to be a matter of timely hitting.
North Georgia struck for a run in the bottom of the second and another run in the bottom of the third to take an early 2-0 lead over Lees-McRae. A sacrifice fly off the bat of Lexi Duncan in the second and a monster shot over the wall in centerfield off the bat of Katie Collins in the third propelled the Nighthawks to the early lead.
However, the Bobcats got the runs back in the top of the fifth with a two-out rally. After UNG starting pitcher Abbie Crawford recorded the first two outs of the inning with a pop out and a strike out, Crawford allowed a walk to Mallory Myer. The next Lees-McRae batter, Katie Robbins, reached on a fielding error to give the Bobcats runners at first and second. Crawford then let up a single to Katelyn What which cut the Nighthawks’ lead to 2-1. Lees-McRae scored another run to even the score at 2-2 off a wild pitch later in the inning.
Crawford would exit the game an inning later with the score still tied 2-2. The UNG pitcher pitched five solid inning for North Georgia, allowing two unearned runs off one hit while striking out seven. Crawford was replace by Smith in the top of the sixth.
Smith came in and was lights out for the Nighthawks. However, North Georgia’s lineup still struggled to get heated up and the game went into extra innings, marking the second extra inning game for North Georgia in one day.
While Smith came in a pitched lights out for the Nighthawks, Lees-McRae’s Kara Cunningham tossed 11 1/3 innings for the Bobcats. The Nighthawks finally got to Cunningham in the bottom of the 12th inning when Collins singled to right center to score Kelly Kahlert from third for the walk-off winner.
Smith picked up her 29th win of the season in the 3-2 UNG victory, pitching seven, scoreless innings while striking out eight Bobcats.
Shelby Hammontree led the North Georgia offense in the win, going 3-for-4 at the plate.
The 12-inning game tied for the third longest game in Southeast Regional tournament history, tying it with UNG’s 12-inning marathon versus Georgia College in the 2015 Super Regional. Kennesaw State and Columbus State played a 17-inning game in the opening round of the South Regional in 1997 which is tied for the third longest game in Division II history.
The win advanced the Nighthawks to the championship finals where they would have to beat Young Harris twice in order to advance to the NCAA Division II Super Regional the following day due to the double elimination format of the tournament.
The Nighthawks were able to take the first game versus Young Harris 2-1 and forced a second game with the Mountain Lions when the two teams took to the diamond for the Southeast Regional finals on Saturday, May 11.
The Nighthawks scored a run in the first inning of game one off a solo home run by Anthony. Anthony blistered a pitch from Young Harris’ Kovalsky that hugged the left field line and sailed over the wall to put North Georgia ahead 1-0.
The Bobcats quickly tied the score at 1-1 in the bottom of the first inning when Botti connected for a RBI single down the left field line.
The score remained the same until the top of the fourth when Shelby Hammontree reached on a fielder’s choice to the shortstop to score Katelyn Perry from third. Hammontree advanced to second on the play, but Kaylee Womack was thrown out at the plate trying to stretch on the play. The inning ended with a fly out to left field, but the damage done to give North Georgia the 2-1 lead would prove to be the difference in the ballgame.
Smith delivered another sensational performance from the bump for the Nighthawks in the game, pitching a complete game. Smith allowed one run off five hits in her seven innings of work, allowing one walk while striking out nine.
The Nighthawks were able to get just enough offensive production to allow Smith to cruise through the final three innings of the game. Smith kept the Mountain Lions at bay in the late innings to earn her 30th win of the season and to help North Georgia stay alive.
The UNG victory forced the two teams to battle it out one more time to see who would emerge as the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional champion.
The second game between the two squads proved to be all Young Harris.
The Mountain Lions scored twice off of Smith in the first inning with a two-run single to right field by Jill Torres to take an early 2-0 advantage. Smith would only last two innings in the game, allowing two runs off three hits while recording a strikeout. Smith was replaced by Crawford in the top of the third.
Crawford pitched well to start for the Nighthawks, recording three scoreless innings of work. However, Crawford got herself into trouble in the top of the sixth and allowed the Mountain Lions to extend their lead to 3-0 with a RBI single to right center by Katelynn Hodges. Crawford then let up two more runs in the top of the seventh to give Young Harris a 5-0 lead. Crawford was replaced by Riley Patton, who was able to record the final out of the seventh without any further damage.
Down to their final three outs, the Nighthawks sent Kahlert, Kali Turner, Stowers and Collins to the plate in hopes of some late inning magic. However, other than Stowers reaching on a hit by pitch, Kovalsky continued her dominance of the UNG lineup and recorded three strikeouts to seal the victory for Young Harris.
The 5-0 loss effectively ended the Nighthawks’ 2019 season. North Georgia finished the season with an overall record of 45-13.
Despite being eliminated from the postseason, the 2019 season marked another stellar season for the UNG softball program, who won a National Championship in 2015 and have gone 201-42 over the past four seasons.