DAHLONEGA, Ga. – The University of North Georgia softball team has already started practicing and preparing for the 2013 season, the program's 17th season of existence.
The Saints' softball program has become one of the most consistent as they have been ranked in the top-10 at the end of the season four years in a row, including No. 1 for the entire regular season of 2010. The Saints have also made five straight trips to the NCAA Division II Tournament including three World Series appearances in their amazing stretch from 2009-11.
After winning Peach Belt Conference titles and earning three straight trips to the NCAA Division II Tournament from 2009-11, the Saints will look to once again advance into post season play in 2013 after closing out the 2012 season in the NCAA Super Regional.
After finishing the 2012 season ranked 10th nationally with an overall record of 49-10, North Georgia will look to showcase a roster that returns four starting infielders, two starting outfielders and two pitchers from last season.
"We are very excited to get the 2013 season underway as we have another very competitive team and a schedule that will hopefully prepare us for the Peach Belt Conference and postseason play," Davenport stated. "We graduated some great players from last season that won over 200 games in their four-year career, so they will be greatly missed, but we are excited to see how our returning players have continued to improve since last season including the addition of the new players to our program."
The good news for the Saints is that they return plenty of experience in nearly every aspect of the game; four returning infielders, three players with extensive experience in the outfield and two veterans in the circle.
Despite losing catcher Hilary Cox to graduation, Davenport will have plenty of veteran experience on defense as he returns Katherine Martin at first base and Karlie Gillam at third as well as his inside players in Sarah Johnson at second and Tiffanie Burns at shortstop.
"We will have four returning infielders from last season and all have the ability to show great leadership in our program," stated Davenport "Katherine has been the heartbeat of our defense for the past four seasons and leads by example and determination so we will count on her to continue that role."
Martin led the team last season with 351 putouts in 53 games that she played in. The senior has also proven to be highly reliable at the plate as she batted .289 which included 35 runs batted in a season ago. Opposite her on the field, Gillam led the team with 120 assists and returns the most consistent bat for the Saints as she led the team last year with a .329 batting average and 14 doubles.
On the interior, Johnson and Burns combined for 162 putouts and 175 assists on defense. On offense, Johnson led the team with 39 runs scored in 2012 while Burns led the team with nine home runs and was third on the squad with 33 RBI.
As for the Saints' backstop, Davenport has four players who could work to fill Cox's shoes including returner Katie Block who played in 41 games last season. The other three are sophomore transfer Kim McMillan and freshmen Amanda Hawkins and Makenzie Day, all three of which could step in at any time for the Saints when called upon.
In the outfield, it is a similar story as North Georgia has three players who have seen action over the past few seasons despite losing center fielder Pilar Harden to graduation.
"We will return at least three outfielders that have started a number of games in their careers here at North Georgia," Davenport said. "Our outfielders, while all competing for positions, are a group that works extremely hard making each other better. We feel very confident in a number of players that we can put in the outfield and like most positions, it will come down to who is swinging the bat well at a given point of the season."
Those hard working players include senior Kayla Minger and sophomore Rochelle Shuman both of who saw action in at least 52 games last season for the Saints. Like their counterparts in the infield, Minger and Shuman also return consistent bats on offense. Minger batted .308 a season ago while Shuman led the team with eight stolen bases.
North Georgia's strong suit the past few years has certainly been the pitching as Davenport's program produced two NCAA Division II National Pitchers of the Year in Jessica Coan (2011) and Sarah Phillips (2010). Once again, there is plenty of potential to continue that trend this year's pitching corps that includes 2012 Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year Melissa Dickie.
"While graduating two All Americans over the past two seasons we are very excited about these three young women continuing in the ability to keep our program successful each year," stated Davenport. "This season's pitchers all bring a little something different to the circle and have been successful in the past; we want them to continue to be the pitchers they have been to this point."
Dickie and senior Krysten Connelly highlight the pitching corps for the Saints and combined to record a 24-2 record last season. Dickie led the team's trio of pitchers in 2012 with a 1.15 earned run average in 145.2 innings of work and struck out 109 batters while Connelly finished the year with a 2.08 ERA in 30.1 innings of work.
Added to the fold will be freshman Courtney Poole out of Oconee High School who could transition into the same role Dickie had last year of getting called on early as a freshman.
North Georgia will waste no time jumping into their tough schedule as the Saints will play five early season tournaments including opening the schedule in Columbus, Ga. at the PBC-Sunshine State Classic the first weekend of February. Of the Saints' 51 regular season games, 22 will be at home inside Haines & Carolyn Hill Softball Stadium.
"We have another great schedule with many great Southeast Region teams in hopes of preparation for post season play," Davenport stated. "We are excited to be playing in five great tournaments that should test our team early in the season against some very quality opponents. And again, each and every double header in the Peach Belt is always extremely competitive and this season looks to be the same."