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Softball team starts postseason as Peach Belt tournament host

UNG senior infielder Marley Stowers is one of four UNG players who will graduate from UNG during a special commencement ceremony held on May 4 between games.

The University of North Georgia (UNG) softball team, ranked fifth nationally, is gearing up for its favorite time of year.

A perennial postseason juggernaut, the Nighthawks will host the Peach Belt Conference (PBC) tournament May 3-4 at Haines and Carolyn Hill Stadium in what they hope is the first of three consecutive weekends of home games. Top-seeded UNG will start the weekend against No. 8 seed UNC Pembroke in the PBC quarterfinals at 4 p.m. Friday.

UNG has already won its sixth straight regular-season PBC title, with a 16-4 mark in PBC play and a 39-11 overall record. A PBC tournament championship this weekend would put the Nighthawks in prime position to be the Southeast Regional No. 1 seed, which would allow them to host a regional and Super Regional series. 

Of course, the goal is to reach the NCAA Division II Softball Championship, set for May 23-27 in Denver, Colorado, and earn the program's second national title in five seasons.

The eight-team, single-elimination PBC event serves as a pressure-packed precursor to the NCAA tournament.

"It's a good little preview of what you have the following weeks with regionals and Super Regionals and hopefully the College World Series," UNG head coach Mike Davenport said.

Marley Stowers, a senior infielder from Concord, Georgia, leads the team with 34 RBIs and is tied for the team lead with five home runs. Her batting average of .336 is second on the team.

Stowers and teammates Jordan Deep, Kelly Kahlert and Kristen Adkins will graduate from UNG during a special commencement ceremony held on the field May 3 between games.

Stowers started her college career at the University of West Georgia. This is her second season with UNG. She is grateful to play for a national contender.

"If you're not happy playing at North Georgia, you don't like college softball," Stowers said. "We have it the best of anybody: the expectations, the feel around here, good teammates, good team chemistry. It's literally a dream."

Junior pitcher Kylee Smith has been a major catalyst again for UNG this season, with a 24-2 record, a national-best 0.50 ERA and 247 strikeouts. She has been selected as a top 25 candidate for the Schutt Sports/NFCA Division II National Player and Pitcher of the Year awards. Smith won the National Player of the Year award in 2018, and the Pitcher of the Year award will be handed out for the first time this season.

Smith pitched the fifth perfect game in program history in a 6-0 win against USC Aiken on April 19 and tossed a one-hitter in UNG's 3-0 win against Columbus State on April 24.

Lexi Duncan, a junior outfielder from McDonough, Georgia, is third on the team with a .329 batting average. Duncan said she and her teammates are confident ahead of the postseason.

"We play really well together, and we have a strong senior class," Duncan said. "It's clear that everyone is playing for them. We want to make sure we give them our all before they leave."

UNG doesn't boast the same 62-4 record of a year ago, when it set a school record for wins and reached the NCAA Division II Softball Championship round for the first time since its 2015 national title. Duncan said teams that face the Nighthawks know that doesn't mean the team is any less dangerous.

Davenport said some of the losses this season came down to lineup tinkering to find the right combinations. Stowers said the extra regular-season losses will prove to be valuable.

"This year our weaknesses have been pointed out to us more quickly so that we can prepare and fix them before postseason," Stowers said. "That's really something that will help us."

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