By Jeff Owens/Photos by SC Athletics
Three-quarters of the way through the 2017 season, it looked like South Carolina's streak of four straight trips to the NCAA Softball Tournament would come to an end.
Beverly Smith's seventh South Carolina team was 24-17 overall but just 3-12 in the SEC. Despite playing in the toughest conference in the country, the Gamecocks appeared to be a long-shot for a postseason berth.
Then Smith's team did something South Carolina had not done in 15 years in softball — beat the nation's No. 1 team.
The Gamecocks knocked off No. 1 Florida State at Carolina Stadium April 14 to gain some much-needed momentum and spark a march toward the NCAA Tournament. The 7-2 win over FSU led South Carolina on an 8-5 run that featured conference wins over No. 7 Auburn and series victories over No. 22 Georgia and No. 18 LSU.
By the end of the season, the Gamecocks were 32-23 overall, 8-15 in the mighty SEC and ranked No. 24 in the country. And they earned their fifth straight NCAA appearance.
The Gamecocks will play Northeast Conference Champion St. Francis (Pa.) in the Tucson Regional at 7 p.m. ET Friday, with the winner getting a possible showdown with No. 2 seed Arizona.
The turning point of the season was the upset of Florida State behind freshman pitcher Cayla Drotar.
"It was just a great team win," said Smith, who has led the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament five times in her seven seasons at South Carolina. "We hit the ball, we pitched well, we played really good defense. We just had a lot of energy and I think that series gave us a lot of momentum going into the rest of the SEC season."
Once South Carolina knocked off the nation's top team, it gained confidence that it could compete in the SEC, which had 10 teams ranked in the Top 25 at seasons end.
"We talk about having that confidence playing in the SEC and knowing we can play with anybody, but I think it took us a while to warm up to the SEC and actually knowing that we can play with them," senior first baseman Kaylea Snaer said. "I think toward the end of the season it came together."
"Once we just believed in each other and trusted each other, that's when we were able to come out and beat those big teams," senior pitcher Nickie Blue said.
Blue and Snaer have been instrumental on the senior-led team. Blue led the team on the mound with a 10-10 record and 2.46 ERA in 142.1 innings, along with four saves. She has combined with senior Jessica Elliott to give South Carolina one of the strongest starting rotations in the SEC. Elliott finished 15-9 with a 2.82 ERA in 124.1 innings. The senior duo combined for 25 of the Gamecocks' 32 wins. Drotar, 6-4 with a 3.74 ERA in 84.1 innings, gives Carolina a deep rotation.
"We are really getting the pitching performances that we have needed," Smith said heading into the NCAA Tournament. "Nicki Blue and Jessica Elliott have really done a good job keeping our opponents down."
They will need to be on top of their game against two of the top-hitting teams in the country and in a region where the ball carries. St. Francis (48-9) is in the top 20 in the country in scoring, slugging and home runs, and has stolen more than 100 bases.
"It might be a pitching coach's worst nightmare there, they hit a lot for sure," Smith said. "The girls are certainly going to have to pack the bats and get ready to swing their way out of the regional."
The Gamecocks are hitting .280 as a team with 40 home runs (tied for sixth in the SEC).
Snaer, who made the SEC All-Defensive team, hit .280 with eight home runs and has gotten help from a variety of players.
Infielder Mackenzie Boesel, who was named to the SEC All-Freshman team, led the Gamecocks with a .337 average, with seven home runs and 31 RBI. Junior Tiara Duffy hit .321, while junior Krystan White hit .303 with a team-high 38 RBI. Junior Alyssa VanDerveer slugged seven home runs, while senior Victoria Williams hit five home runs while batting a team-best .343 in SEC play.
"We have had really strong senior leadership and I think you are starting to see our depth come alive," Smith said. "I really give a lot of credit to our seniors for bringing them along."
But perhaps South Carolina's biggest advantage going into the regionals is the mere fact that it plays in the SEC, which placed all 13 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Eight of the 13 teams earned national seeds, with Florida No. 1 overall.
Playing that kind of competition every weekend made South Carolina a stronger team.
"That is a huge feather in our cap to have all 13 teams (in)," Smith said. "Everybody can now recognize how hard our jobs are. Every weekend is just a grind in our league so I was just really thrilled to see that all the teams were rewarded for playing such a tough schedule throughout the year."
"Playing those top teams every single weekend just prepared us for the war that regionals is," said Blue, who is making her fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. "For our younger players that play key roles on our team, I think the SEC was the best preparation for them to come in and perform."
Smith's teams continue to get better and better. Though her previous four teams won more games, the 2017 group played the toughest schedule in her tenure and cracked the Top 25 in both national polls for the first time since 2007.
"I'm really proud of this group and that we've been to five NCAA Tournaments," she said. "This is the group of seniors we recruited six years ago, and it was, 'Hey, come here and change a program.' This group of seniors has really done that. They are the ones who have bought in and really gone about changing the culture here."