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Baseball: UNG reaches Division II World Series with heavy Forsyth County influence
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Seven players from Forsyth County helped the University of North Georgia baseball team reach the NCAA Division II World Series for the first time in program history. From left to right, Anthony Carco, Parker Morrison, Andres Perez, Trevor Sams, Derrick Pickvet, Devin Gearhart and William Mapes. (Laurie Davis) - photo by For the FCN

Trevor Sams had decided that he was done with baseball. The North Forsyth alum had started his college career at Darton College in Albany, but the strain of being four-and-a-half hours from his family took hold. Sams planned to transfer to the University of North Georgia's campus in Watkinsville and try to go to the University of Georgia after that. 

But then Sams started missing baseball. He got in touch with UNG's coaches in Dahlonega, who told him that the fall squad was full but that he could come to a camp and use that as a tryout. By the spring of 2014, he was on the team. 

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North Forsyth alum Trevor Sams almost quit baseball, but now the redshirt senior is finishing up a productive career at UNG. (Laurie Davis) - photo by For the FCN

Three years later, the Nighthawks, with Sams as the starting first baseman and de facto team captain, are headed to the Division II World Series in Grand Prairie, Texas. And for Sams, the program is closer to home in more than just distance: He's one of six players on the roster who played high school baseball in Forsyth County. 

"Maybe it's the type of kid, how they're brought up or the schools they're in, (where) they relate to the North Georgia way or the way the program's run," Nighthawks head coach Tom Cantrell said. "...Those kids fit the mold of what we're about."

The county alums on the Nighthawks roster are Sams; South Forsyth's Devin Gearhart; West Forsyth's Derrick Pickvet; Forsyth Central's Parker Morrison; and Pinecrest Academy's Anthony Carco and Andres Perez.

Gearhart is the longest-tenured member of the group, having joined the program in 2013, before the Nighthawks had a fieldhouse, or an indoor hitting facility, or a turf field in a stadium that outstrips many Division I facilities. 

"They had to do a lot better job of recruiting," Gearhart said with a laugh.

In his five years with the program, Gearhart has drawn accolades including being named to the ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove Team in 2016 for his defense at first base. He's fifth on the team with a .323 batting average this year, five points ahead of Sams, whose 69 RBIs and 12 home runs are both second on the team.

"I just remember him making a diving play at home against us when he was playing shortstop," Sams said of his memory of facing Gearhart before they were teammates. "And then when we got up here, it turned out that he was a much better player than I had figured out from high school."  

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Former Pinecrest Academy standout Andres Perez has made an instant impact as the University of North Georgia's starting catcher, including hitting the eventual game-winning home run that sent the Nighthawks into the NCAA Division II World Series for the first time ever. (Laurie Davis) - photo by For the FCN

Perez is the other Forsyth County alum with a full-time spot in the batting order. The son of former big leaguer and current Atlanta Braves first base coach Eduardo Perez has notable pedigree and a powerful 6-foot-7 frame, which contributed to him being drafted in the 36th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. 

Perez's bat has struggled at times adjusting to the college game -- his .253 batting average is the lowest among the Nighthawks' starters -- but he has been solid as the team's starting catcher and hit the go-ahead home run in UNG's win over Catawba that put the Nighthawks in the World Series.

"He ain't even near what he's going to be," Cantrell said of Perez. "For what he's done this year, in his first year of college baseball, he gets an A-plus."

The Nighthawks haven't been carried by one facet of the game this year. Most of the lineup is hitting over .300, and the team's slugging percentage is .529, but there are also three starters with ERAs under 3. In its NCAA regional, UNG won both ways, outslugging Mount Olive 13-6 and holding its other three opponents to seven runs combined. 

But this team is notable in particular for its chemistry, Cantrell said. 

"They're different than any group I've ever coached, and I'm not just saying that because of where we're at," Cantrell said. "I've never seen a group of people (where) they're comfortable around one another all the time. They like being around one another all the time. They hate it when they're not together."

Having as many players with similar backgrounds, who grew up and played ball in the same place, certainly contributes to that. Gearhart stays in touch with South head baseball coach Russ Bayer and often swings by the War Eagles' facilities to hit. 

He knows that he's a representative of the Nighthawks' program and its benefits and tries to sell the high school crowd on what it's done for him, how Gearhart, an Ohio native, at first was determined to go to college away from Georgia but wound up settling at a school less than an hour from home.

"I'd love to see more Forsyth County guys up here," Gearhart said. "I think it's a great fit."

UNG is set to face West Chester on Saturday at 3 p.m. central in its first game of the double-elimination tournament.