Softball Takes Full Home Field Advantage with Doubleheader Sweep
Golden Tigers Inaugurate New Athletics Park with 9-0 and 9-1 Victories over visiting Talladega College Tornadoes
By Karen Rosen
Brenau University junior Mackenzie Oliver Mullis has scored plenty of runs in her softball career, but she had even more reason to celebrate crossing home plate Friday afternoon.
“It’s a whole different story knowing it’s our dirt and our field,” said Mullis, who is a health sciences major from Carnesville, Georgia. “We’re not sharing it with anybody. It felt like ours.”
Mullis scored the first run on the new softball field at Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletics Park, which gives the Golden Tigers legitimate “home field” advantage. They previously played on parks and recreation fields in the Gainesville area.
The facility, Phase 1 of a $4.4 million project, is in the New Holland community, about two miles from the historic Brenau campus in Gainesville. Although the formal dedication will be April 18, there was some fanfare Friday with Brenau President Ed Schrader throwing out the first pitch before about 150 fans on the unseasonably warm, sunny day.
The Golden Tigers remain undefeated with a 5-0 record after topping Talladega College in an afternoon doubleheader, with the score 9-0 in the first game and 9-1 in the second. In Game 1, freshman pitcher Eli Daniel, a biology major from Locust Grove, Georgia, posted the first no-hitter at Pacolet Milliken Field while sophomore Lexi Cash recorded the first hit at the park that is named after the South Carolina-based company that donated the 16.8-acre tract of land next to its textile mill.
Cash, who doubled to drive in Mullis in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, recognized the Golden Tigers players who came before her and never had a field to call their own.
“They just paved the way for this to happen,” the pre-nursing major from Toccoa, Georgia, said. “It means a lot to me to be part of the first team to be out here.”
The athletic park is a home run for Brenau, which hopes to add a field for soccer and lacrosse and a track adjacent to the softball venue.
The Melvin Douglas and Victoria Kay Ivester Foundation provided funding in 2014 to complete development of the first phase of the park, which is named for Kay Ivester’s father. Douglas Ivester, the former Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO, is a Brenau trustee. The Ivesters grew up in New Holland.
With Brenau’s enrollment approximately 830 at the Women’s College, almost one-fourth are involved in intercollegiate athletics.
Schrader said the new athletic facility marks the fulfillment of a promise and a renewed commitment to alumni of the Women’s College and all future Brenau students “that we’re not following the path of all these women’s schools in the last 30 years who have either ceased to exist or gone coed.”
Brenau has already built $10 million worth of new dormitories and sorority houses and the $4.4 million earmarked for the park is part of the $40 million “ForeverGold” capital campaign.
“So it’s a ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” Schrader said. “We’ve said for a while that we’re going to keep our Women’s College going. Well, this is a demonstration that we are.”
David Barnett, Brenau CFO and executive vice president, said the facility, which continues to expand the school’s footprint around the Gainesville area, “makes it feel more like a traditional environment and less like a commuter kind of school. It gives life and energy to the community that isn’t present when you don’t have your own facility to use.”
This helps toward student retention, he added, because it is “exponentially higher among students who are actively engaged in some way over and above just taking their courses. This provides them with a place to connect socially as well as academically.”
The Golden Tigers softball team began reaping benefits even before the first pitch.
Coach Devon Thomas said he has completed his recruiting class for 2017. “All five that I brought in, they came to the field and they committed that night,” he said. “I’ve also got two for 2018 already. I used to have to wait, and now they see the locker room, the field house, the facility, the scoreboard and it helps recruiting 100 percent.”
Thomas’ roots are in the New Holland community, too. Both of his paternal grandparents worked at the mill. His grandfather pitched on a fast-pitch team that played on the old ball fields in the mill that was at about the same spot in the park as the new field. Thomas even played on the fields growing up.
“I had goosebumps today when I came out here,” he said, “just knowing who all played on this field. Johnny Mize is one of the former major league baseball players who played right here on this field, and now we’ve brought the field back to life and continued the game of softball on it.”
When he became coach in 2004, Brenau finished 2-40 in his first year. The Golden Tigers reached the national tournament in 2009, 2012 and 2016, won a conference championship and reached the final four in 2012, losing a spot in the title game by one 7th inning run..
“We’ve been in the top 25 for the past six years all the way as high as No. 2 in the country and receiving first-place votes. So it’s well overdue. It feels like it’s my baby since I started it back in 2004, so it feels good.”
The park’s location off Jesse Jewell Parkway (U.S. 129 and Georgia Highway 369) should also raise Brenau’s profile in the community. “With thousands of cars a day going down that road, we’ll make some new fans, I hope,” Thomas said.
Schrader said it will also attract students. “It’s as good an advertisement as you can get for a drive-by family that either has any sideways interest in their daughter going to Brenau Women’s College, or going home after work and here’s a Brenau ad on TV about continuing education and they want to finish a college degree that they started years ago,” he said. “They see the facilities right there and it’s just a positive imprint on their memory of the school.”
In addition to being used for intercollegiate athletics, Schrader said the field can be used as a community service enhancement facility. He hopes to partner with a nearby assisted living facility and provide a greenway for walking and even movies on the green.
Brenau plans to hold high school and middle school clinics and tournaments on the field when it’s not in the middle of the competitive season.
The new park has regenerated the area, said Vic Wilson, a Brenau graduate who is a New Holland historian and former resident of the close-knit mill community.
“It’s invigorating,” he said. “That’s where our playgrounds were for the school and they had a semi-pro baseball league and the industrial leagues. It’s where life happened down there. For it to be totally neglected for decades, and then for Brenau and the Ivesters to do what they have done, it’s come to life again.”
Matt Thomas, the Brenau vice president for external relations, said that one reason people were generous towards this project was “because of the fact it’s in the New Holland area and the fact that this location had been used for rec sports for numerous generations. This has enabled people that are from Gainesville and from New Holland to see it transform into something that they can be excited about and proud of, and we certainly hope that it’ll be a community asset in addition to being good for Brenau.”
As Brenau athletic director Mike Lochstampfor surveyed the new field Friday, he looked beyond it to the scrub land still waiting to be reclaimed.
“It all looked like that field over there,” he said. “Who would have thought you could have something this beautiful come out of it, this perfect? It rises to a Division I-caliber facility.”
And it is all Brenau’s.