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Spring sports begin with high hopes

Kaylyn Anthony and the UNG softball team were the preseason No. 2 team in the country, as well as the Peach Belt Conference favorite.

Optimism abounds as the University of North Georgia's (UNG) spring sports season begins.

Four spring teams are ranked in national polls, and the men's and women's soccer teams on Feb. 1 started a season postponed five months by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rifle and women's basketball teams, both in the middle of their winter seasons, are each ranked in the national polls, as well.

"As we look to the start of spring sports, we are beyond excited that these programs will have the opportunity to join our winter sports and compete on campus," UNG Director of Athletics Mary Rob Plunkett said. "The health, safety and wellbeing of our student-athletes is of the utmost importance, and we are excited to provide them with the opportunity to compete at home in front of Nighthawk Nation while maintaining the highest regard for their safety along with that of our coaches, staff and spectators."

Fresh off a No. 3 finish nationally in the shortened 2020 season, the UNG softball team ranked No. 2 in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association preseason poll and is the preseason Peach Belt Conference (PBC) favorite. The Nighthawks, who finished 23-4 last year, began the season Feb. 7.

Head coach Mike Davenport said the preseason honors are a testament to the program's sustained success, and this year is a new opportunity to build on that foundation amid the challenges of COVID-19.

"This team has to create its own identity in the 2021 season," Davenport said.

The PBC tournaments for softball, baseball, men's and women's soccer, and men's and women's tennis will each be limited to four teams.

UNG will offer free admission to home baseball, softball and soccer contests. Masks are required at the facilities. Capacity will be limited at each facility based on available socially distant spaces. Admission to events will be capped when all marked seating in the bleachers and common areas for standing or chairs is occupied. Full spectator policies are available on the UNG Athletics website.

Other spring sports opening the season in February are:

  • The men's and women's tennis teams, which opened the season Feb. 7, are ranked nationally. The women are No. 15 and the men No. 23 in their respective polls.
  • The men's golf team debuted at No. 15 in the pre-spring Bushnell Golf Week poll. In the fall, the Nighthawks tied for fourth in the UNG Invitational. They open their spring schedule Feb. 22. The women's golf team starts its season Feb. 8.
  • The baseball team, coming off a 13-6 campaign in 2020, was No. 2 in the preseason PBC poll and began the season Feb. 4. The Nighthawks have won at least a share of the PBC title in three of the past five full seasons.
  • The women's track and field team starts the season with first-year head coach Chris England on March 6.

For the men's and women's soccer teams, it was a long wait to start their shortened season that won't feature any NCAA tournaments.

Men's head coach Patrice Parris is grateful his players could practice in the fall. His team, ranked sixth in the PBC preseason poll, was also excited to return to the field for preseason practice in January.

"It allows them to forget momentarily what's happening in the world," Parris said. "The kids are smiling again. They're going through something that's very familiar."

The women's soccer team, ranked third in the PBC preseason poll, reached the NCAA tournament second round in 2019 and will look to build off that success this spring. Kayley Ralton, who is in her fourth season on the team's coaching staff, will serve as interim head coach.

"Our players are upbeat," Ralton said. "And they're excited to play again."

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