LAWRENCEVILLE — Kat Ihlenburg sees it when one of her players sweeps the dugout free of dust and dirt.
Georgia Gwinnett College’s softball team played just the final two games of last season on their home field. Construction delays meant the Grizzlies were dependent on the hospitality of nearby Collins Hill High School in their inaugural campaign. Ihlenburg was deeply grateful for use of the facility, but she really appreciates having her own home. And watching the players care for it.
“I don’t want to blame the facilities, but the routine and the rhythm make a difference,” Ihlenburg said.
She’s hoping it means the team, which finished 18-26 last year, can find it’s stride earlier in the season.
“I don’t ask for do-overs,” Ihlenburg said. “I made us a hard schedule last year. We competed with a lot of top NAIA programs, and by the end of the season, I felt like we hit our stride and had some of those wins we were chomping to get at the beginning of the season.
“We’re not sitting back and hoping for the best. We’re going after the best. That’s the only way we’re going to learn over the next few years, being independent.”
The early spring practices have been intense, but Ihlenburg is seeing the results — and the effort.
After a long — very long — Saturday practice two weeks ago, Ihlenburg looked out from her office window and glimpsed four players hitting more balls.
“To see them out there still, they get it,” Ihlenburg said. “It’s exciting.”
A phrase has begun to catch on around the team. In the middle of another long workout, it’s tough to remember what you’re sweating for.
“I’ve been saying to them lately, ‘Smell the dirt and feel the trophy,’” Ihlenburg said.
Then she chuckled.
“The first time, they were like, ‘What?’” Ihlenburg said. “Now it’s like, make that happen.”
The Grizzlies can make it happen this season. Last year, the program wasn’t eligible to compete for the playoffs.
“It’s fresh again,” Ihlenburg said. “It’s the first of all this. There’s something to play for.
“Last year we were absolutely playing to get an identity. This year, we’re hosting the conference tournament and there’s something to play for. Every day there’s a reason.”
GGC, which opens the season Feb. 7 to 9 in Daytona Beach, Fla., at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Tournament, has added six new players to the lineup. Four of those have previous college experience. They join a roster that includes a strong returning group, including five seniors.
Returning for the Grizzlies are the team’s RBI leader, Heaven Hinton, and runs-scored leader, Halley Ingram. Both are seniors.
The team’s innings, wins and strikeouts leader on the mound, right-handed sophomore Ashley Beyke is also back.
Ihlenburg brought in 2012 NAIA national champion pitcher Kayla Byrom into the fold. The junior from Statham, by way of Shorter, was second in the nation that season in fewest total earned runs allowed by a starter. Incoming freshman Chelsi Palazzo further increases the pitching depth.
Junior infielder Brittany Bruns, sophomore catcher Alycia Fields (tied for second on team with .317 average) and senior outfielder Carrie Ann Bullard all add returning experience for the Grizzlies.
“They’re a good bunch,” Ihlenburg said. “I couldn’t ask for much more with the 16 we have as far as attitude. We carry a big theme — you don’t do it for yourself, you do it for your teammate, for your sister. I see them doing it, picking each other up and making sure everyone has each other’s back.”
GGC’s home opener is Feb. 24, the first of 24 games on campus in Lawrenceville.
GGC 2014 SOFTBALL SCHEUDLE
Daytona Beach, Fla.
Feb. 7 at Embry-Riddle, 5 p.m.
Feb. 8 vs. Southeasterm, noon
Feb. 8 vs. Mobile, 2 p.m.
Feb. 9 at Embry-Riddle, 10 a.m.
Feb. 15 at Columbia (S.C.), 2 p.m. (DH)
Feb. 16 at Vorhees, 1 p.m. (DH)
Feb. 24 vs. Cumberland (Tenn.), 3 p.m. (DH)
March 1 vs. Bryan, 3 p.m. (DH)
March 4 at Agnes Scott, 5 p.m. (DH)
March 7 vs. Columbia (S.C.), 2 p.m. (DH)
March 9 vs. Virginia Intermont, 1 p.m. (DH)
March 10 vs. St. Andrews, 1 p.m. (DH)
William Carey Tournament
March 14 at William Carey, 10:30 a.m.
March 14 vs. Mobile, 2:30 p.m.
March 15 vs. Spring Hill, 12:30 p.m.
March 15 vs. Alcorn State, 4:30 p.m.
March 18 vs. Emmanuel, 5 p.m.
March 22 at Bryan, 2 p.m. (DH)
March 25 at Cumberland (Tenn.), 2 p.m. (DH)
March 28 vs. Montreat, 4 p.m. (DH)
March 29 vs. Birmingham-Southern, 2 p.m. (DH)
April 1 vs. Agnes Scott, 5 p.m. (DH)
April 4 at Montreat, 4 p.m. (DH)
April 6 vs. Milligan, 1 p.m. (DH)
April 8 at St. Andrews, 2 p.m. (DH)
April 10 vs. Vorhees, 4 p.m. (DH)
APril 12 at Milligan, 2 p.m. (DH)
April 13 at Virginia Intermont, 2 p.m. (DH)
April 15 at Emmanuel, 5 p.m. (DH)
April 19 vs. Coastal Georgia, 1 p.m. (DH)
April 22 at Talladega, 3 p.m. (DH)
May 1-3 AII Tournament