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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
Brandon Dawson is a devout Christian who has played basketball collegiately at the D-1 level at Kennesaw State University. Breeze, as he is known as by friends and family, is a 23-year-old from Atlanta, GA. Brandon is a very humble young man and says that “The only reason I’ve gotten to where I am today is because of God and the family that he has blessed me with. It’s not because of my abilities; it’s been all of him and none of me.”
Brandon comes from a long line of successful family members. The close knit Dawson family is caring and loving but also knows when to push each other to get the best out of one another. He has two brothers; Nick who is 25 and Josh who is 21. Nick is a recording artist who is starting to make a name for himself in the Atlanta area and has brushed shoulders with some of the top labels in the industry. Josh currently plays defensive end at the University of Georgia and will be entering his senior season. The two brothers have played a big role in Brandon’s development as a person. “Both of my brothers have inspired me tremendously throughout the years. We all inspire each other, that’s what family does.”
At the age of four was when Brandon started to develop a love for the game of basketball and he has his father to thank. “He played in this men’s league when we were kids. He would take us to his games and I just remember watching him play, and him letting me hold the basketballs on the ride home.” The unique sights and senses of a cozy gym, which may be overlooked by those who haven’t played the game growing up, drew Brandon in. “I loved the way the ball felt in my hands, and the smell of a gym.”
After playing basketball for years, it was in the 8th grade against Redan Middle School when Dawson first realized he may be a step above his peers and have a chance at playing in college. “I had 19 points in the first half. From then on I never doubted it. For me, basketball was never about “making it” I knew I would make it. I just wanted to keep having fun with it.” Brandon’s ability to separate the pressures of playing basketball and the importance of having fun was soon tested in high school. He went to Tucker High School in DeKalb County which has to this day, been recognized as a perennial power in the state of Georgia. As a freshman Dawson suited up for the Tigers and watched as Tucker brought home its second state championship in school history. Though Dawson was not an integral part to the team’s success as he was called up from JV to join the bench for the run to state, he managed to see how Tucker greats such as MarShon Brooks and Manny Atkins carried themselves and learned from them.
Asked about what it was like playing for a prestigious program and playing with great players, Brandon said, “It was hard, but a lot of fun. We had coaches that held us to a higher standard, and demanded nothing but excellence from us. Coach [James] Hartry always told us to have fun and leave everything out there because playing basketball isn’t a right; it’s a privilege that can be taken away from you in an instant. Winning is hard, I was so fortunate to be a part of a team that won a state championship.”
Once Dawson’s recruiting picked up steam after a successful junior season, Brandon knew it was time to make a decision and ultimately decided to become a Kennesaw State Owl. “I prayed one night about it. I wanted to be signed before I started my senior season because I wanted to play my senior year and be free, not having to worry about where I was going to school. So I asked God to send me a sign one night, 15 minutes later I heard an owl outside of my window, and I knew then. So I called Coach Ingle the next day, set up my visit and became an owl.” Brandon would play three years at Kennesaw before transferring to pursue other things in life. After a one year hiatus, he would return back to continue studying at KSU. Now a senior, Dawson is studying Sport Management with the hopes of either becoming a sports agent or a coach. He has helped coach within the Tucker basketball program this season and already is beginning to give back to the community that helped shape him.
He says that he is still pursuing a basketball career but just for the short term as he has many other interests in his life such as cartoons and cars. Many would not guess it at first sight due to his tenacity on the hardwood, but ‘Breeze’ is a gentle man standing at 6-foot-5. He is very intellectual and loves to follow God and Jesus’s teachings. He is passionate about cars and considers himself a “cartoon connoisseur”. Brandon loves Dragon Ball Z and also classic cartoons such as Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry.
Becoming a well-rounded individual has taken some help and guidance along the way. “I can’t say it enough, I am truly blessed to have a family like the one I have. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. We don’t always see eye to eye, but at the end of the day it’s all love, and I know they’re always behind me 100%, and there’s no doubt about that” When asked about his strong bond with God, Brandon stated, “I can say this without any doubt, and I want to make sure that this is clear and understood, there is nothing that can happen in the world to shake my faith. I read the bible and I have a strong relationship with God. 365 times in the bible it says “do not fear.” So even when a situation has seemed bleak, I have always kept my faith in The Lord. And I can honestly say I’ve never been in a position where I didn’t come out winning because of this undeniable faith.”
Knowing Brandon for over two years now personally, I can truthfully say that he is one of the nicest people I have met in my time at Kennesaw. He cares about everyone he comes in touch with and wants the best for all his peers. I have no doubt in my mind that the man known as ‘Breeze’ will continue to be a role model for those around him and will continue to walk hand-in-hand with the Lord on his path to a long and successful life.