Howard enjoying big senior season
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
Jake Howard is enjoying the ride.
Howard, a LaGrange High graduate, is in the midst of his final season as a baseball player at the University of North Georgia, and he’s looking to make the most of the time he has left on the diamond.
So far, so good.
Howard, the starting shortstop for the Nighthawks, has been one of the top players for a team that is 19-7 overall, and 18-6 against Peach Belt conference foes.
Howard, who has started all 26 games, is hitting .333 with four home runs, 24 RBIs, and 28 runs scored, all while excelling at arguably the most challenging defensive position on the field.
On Tuesday, Howard had two hits and three RBIs as North Georgia beat Anderson to win for the ninth time in 10 games.
“The big thing for me is going out there knowing it’s my last season, so I’m just having fun with it,” Howard said.
“When you have fun and play loose, good things happen.”
Howard is part of a veteran team filled with players who saw their 2020 seasons cut short because of COVID-19.
The Nighthawks were 13-6 when the season ended, and that was a tough blow to all of the players, including Howard, who was hitting .367.
Not long after the abbreviated season ended, all of the players decided to return for one more ride.
“Really, last year we felt like we had a really good team, and then everything happened,” Howard said. “Everybody on our team came back this year. So we had the same group of guys, and we’re a veteran group, so it’s been a really fun season because we’re very close. We’ve been playing with each other for three, four, five years. So it’s been a really fun season so far.”
Howard also believes the way the 2020 season ended has given everyone on the team a sense of urgency.
“We have a lot of seniors on our team, and I think everybody’s going out and playing like today could be their last game,” Howard said. “Last year, we didn’t know our last game was coming, and it did.”
Thanks to an NCAA ruling, no players participating in a spring sport in 2020 had to use up a year of eligibility, so everyone on the team was able to return, if they wanted to.
“We had a lot of fourth-year guys (last season),” Howard said. “It just so happened that everybody came back and gave this team another chance to accomplish some goals we’ve set.”
Howard, who as a senior at LaGrange High as a part of a team that reached the state semifinals, arrived at North Georgia in 2017.
After taking a red-shirt year in 2017, Howard played sparingly in 2018 and 2019 before getting an opportunity to be an every-day player in 2020.
Howard was in the midst of a phenomenal season when everything ended, and he has picked up right where he left off.
“I’m not taking it for granted, staying loose, having fun, and enjoying the time I have with my teammates,” Howard said. “That’s kind of been my outlook on the entire season.”
Howard will graduate in May with a degree in Kinesiology, and soon after he will begin physical-therapy school at Augusta State.
From baseball, to school life, to the friends he’s made, Howard’s time at North Georgia has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“This whole time, I’ve been blessed with great teammates, and great roommates,” Howard said. “I’ve loved every second of being in school here.”
While the finish line is in sight, there is still work left to do.
North Georgia has 14 regular-season games remaining before the conference tournament begins on May 7.
North Georgia begins a challenging stretch of games with a three-game series at Columbus State this weekend. The teams will play single games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, giving Howard an opportunity to play close to his home town.
“We have three conference weekends left, and they’re all on the road, and they’re all against top-five teams in the conference,” Howard said. “We have rest of the tough schedule, so we’ll learn a lot about where we’re at.”