Tag Archives: High School Sports

Behind Trio Of Aces, North Gwinnett Seeks First State Title

Enjoying their finest season as a program, the North Gwinnett softball team enters the final weeks of the regular season ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAAA and 24-1 overall, with an unblemished 9-0 record in Region 7.

At the helm of the Lady Bulldogs is veteran head coach Randy Black, who enters his 25th year at North Gwinnett and 21st as head coach. Over the years Black has seen numerous talented teams come through the Suwanee area, but to this day the Lady Bulldogs still seek their first state championship. As the postseason looms, North Gwinnett will be pegged as a heavy favorite thanks to timely hitting, solid fundamental defense and a nearly untouchable pitching staff.

Photo By John Bohn/Gwinnett Daily Post
Photo By John Bohn/Gwinnett Daily Post

Last year North Gwinnett finished the season 18-13-1 but fielded a young roster. Going into the 2015 season, Black new the team had a chance to be special. “I knew we’d be a little bit better than we were last year because we had everybody coming back. We were very, very young last year,” explained the head coach.

The Lady Bulldogs’ calling card this season has been its pitching, headlined by a trio of legitimate aces. Seniors Rachel Smith (GCSU) and Kylee Smith have been steady, but freshman Chandler Dennis, younger sister of senior first baseman Emily Dennis, has been the “pleasant surprise” to round out the rotation and give them a young dominating talent that is hard to find.

Chandler Dennis | Photo By Bridget Wilbur
Chandler Dennis | Photo By Bridget Wilbur

“We knew she would be good, but we didn’t realize how good,” said Black when speaking about the freshman who has gone 8-0 with a 0.41 ERA.

Aside from Dennis, the veterans of the staff have gotten the job done as well. “Rachel is just a fierce competitor, she probably throws harder than any of the other pitchers and she just has a will about her to win and she is going to do whatever it takes.”

The other Smith, Kylee (not related), relies on a different approach on the mound. “Kylee, she still throws pretty hard but she has incredible movement and [her] poise on the mound is incredible. You have no idea if you are winning or losing by looking at her.” Smith is currently unsigned, but is being recruited by eight schools and has been visiting a few of her suitors.

Winning 24 out of 25 potential games is a nice start, but Black knows that the end goal is raising a trophy in late October.

“Out of the 20 kids we have on the varsity, probably 14 or 15 of them are straight-A students and they are very focused and realize even though the success as far as [it] got us some wins, the big prize is the end and these kids have bought into one pitch, one inning, one game at a time.”

A Burning Drive…

The focus and hunger the girls have been able to maintain comes from the disappointment of falling short last year in the first round of the playoffs against Archer. North Gwinnett beat the Tigers 10-5 in Game 1, but mental mistakes cost them in Game 2 and allowed Archer to steal a 4-3 win in extra innings. In the series deciding tiebreaker game, Archer scored two early runs and held onto a Game 3, 2-0 victory to end North Gwinnett’s season early.

Rachel Smith | Photo By Bridget Wilbur
Rachel Smith | Photo By Bridget Wilbur

Letting the series slip away has loomed in the players’ minds and the coaching staff has harped on not letting it happen again. “The coaching staff stays on them all the time about playing every pitch and every inning. And they knew that if they would have done that, they possibly would have went to Columbus last year with a very, very young team.”

This season, the Lady Bulldogs are very young again starting just two seniors and have received contributions from everywhere, not just on the mound. Junior Haley Griffith and sophomore Erin Wilbur have led the charge offensively. A rallying point for the team has revolved around the loss of shortstop Makenna Dowell, a junior who has started since she was a freshman and who was hitting over .500 before sustaining an injury against Mill Creek on Sept. 8.

“It’s kind of like getting a traded player later on. They realize they are going to get her back and she will definitely bolster the offense and the defense.” said Black.

Kylee Smith | Photo By Bridget Wilbur
Kylee Smith | Photo By Bridget Wilbur

Black and the rest of the Lady Bulldogs are eager to get Dowell back for their playoff run. In the past, North Gwinnett has run into eventual state champions who have ended their season like Archer in 2012 in the second round.

This edition of the Lady Bulldogs is ready to go all the way and is one of the best groups Black has ever coached in his 21 years at North Gwinnett. “Talent-wise, it’s one of the top five probably. Character, definitely one of the top ones. The success the rest of the season will determine where they fall in and how good this team really is.”

When Is Enough, Enough?

Every year, year in and year out there are high school seniors playing sports and chasing their dreams. For about 90% of those kids, those dreams will come to an end as they move onto college. For the lucky 10%, they will play in college somewhere, but only about three of that 10% will play division-one basketball.

Players will chase the dream, or follow their love of the sport well into their college career and play for minuscule programs. Those high school glory days of seeing 300 people or more packed into a gym are cut down to 50 people watching you play Georgia A&M Technical School for the Hearing Impaired.  It’s fine to play at that level if you love it, but if you do, why not realize the fact that, that is probably all for you? You’re not going to magically end up in the NBA and if you do get lucky, maybe you’ll join a pro-league in Finland in the third-division. But is it worth it? Moving to a foreign country and leaving all your friends and family behind to play 15 minutes a game? When is enough, enough?

Glory Daze?

It’s difficult for me watching people I have grown up with chase this elusive and unrealistic dream. You are really willing to uproot your life and move to Kazakhstan to play basketball for $50 a game?

This is where education comes into play. One must understand that you need a fall back. Playing sports will not be there for you forever. Do you really want to wake up one morning and be 35 years old with only $10K in the bank and ask yourself, “How did it get to this?” What happens when you start a family and have to support them? Playing for breadcrumbs overseas when you could have had a respectable job in your field of study even if it isn’t something you love, isn’t going to cut it.

We all grow up at some point and realize we aren’t going to be the next LeBron James, or at least I hope we do. If you go to a small division-one school and don’t cut it there, then become a rotational player and a D-3 school, maybe the writing is on the wall for you that basketball isn’t your calling card and isn’t the greatest career for you to follow.

I played in high school and was an adequate player. I could have played somewhere very, very tiny, but I knew there was life beyond playing sports. I still love sports and that is why I am working in them and writing this, but playing in front of 50 fans in an elementary school gym for a division-whatever game just wasn’t appealing for me and didn’t make any sense.

The worst thing about this vicious cycle is the enablers; the ones who will support you no matter what. It is tough, but we all need realistic criticism and guidance at some point. If you rode the bench all four years in high school, but still are trying to play a sport and try and hook up with a semi-pro team that plays in churches on the weekend in front of two youth pastors and the janitor, someone needs to tell you, “hey, I know you love basketball, but it’s time to be an adult and plan for the future.”

People high-fiving each other for joining a semi-league team just doesn’t make sense. I would much rather high-five you for landing an entry-level job in your field of study that has upside for promotion. How far are you really going to get ‘promoted’ in the ABA?

D-League players, who are theoretically the closest players to joining the NBA, make on average $12,000 to $24,000. No way is that going to be enough to support a family and how long is the longevity of these players? And again, not everyone is going to the D-League. These are guys who were strong contributors on their divison-one teams, not D-3 backup point guards that are 5-foot-5.

Be Smart

I just want to caution you and let you know that it is ok to give up the game. You can still love your sport, no one will judge you for that. But you are only hindering yourself if you are going to chase a big break that is never coming.

Go into sports writing, or marketing if you don’t like the degree you earned in college. Why not try and jump aboard a major scouting or exposure agency and try and work with them?

There is more than one way to skin a cat. There is more than one way to make a living in sports. Playing at the highest level isn’t for everyone. Be smart with your time and look towards the future. Playing sports sometimes is not a sustainable career path. If you are a 5-foot-7 point guard, you’re not going to gain those extra seven inches over night as a 24-year-old to help you get scouts’ and coaches’ attention.

It’s not easy, but sometimes stepping away from the game and diversifying yourself is the best way to go. You are not a quitter if you stop playing after high school and you certainly are not a quitter if you stop playing in college or afterwards. The world revolves around sports, but there sometimes are better options out there.