By Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Athletics and Allen Sharpe
Though South Carolina softball had one of its best seasons under head coach Bev Smith last year, the 34-25 record and No. 25 national ranking left Smith and her team wanting more.
The Gamecocks advanced to the finals of an NCAA Regional for the third time under Smith, but the eight-year head coach targeted one area where she believes her team needs an upgrade. Though they hit 45 home runs, the third most in school history, and sported a .278 team average and .430 slugging percentage, Smith believes her team can take a step up offensively.
"I felt like the last couple of years we had been a little flat offensively. We certainly have the talent," she said.
So when she needed a new assistant coach this season, Smith knew exactly what she was looking for. And one name kept coming back to her.
Matt Lisle, the head coach at Menlo College in California, has developed a national reputation as an accomplished hitting coach in both softball and baseball. He led the Oaks to their first winning season in 14 years last season and has also helped hitters as an assistant coach at Cal State-East Bay, Santa Clara and Oregon.
A former high school baseball coach, Lisle has also developed a reputation online for his instructional videos, e-books and hitting advice, amassing more than 700,000 followers on social media, most of them baseball and softball players and coaches. He works with more than 50 professional hitters, including major leaguers Mitch Haniger (Mariners) and Joc Pederson (Dodgers).
Smith was familiar with Lisle's work and when she started looking for a new assistant coach, he came highly recommended by multiple coaches.
"When I was doing some recruiting and just talking to coaches and gathering names, his name kept coming up," Smith said. "I think he is a professional when it comes to hitting and hitting instruction, and I think him bringing his knowledge to our team is going to help us grow."
Lisle has been coaching in the college and high school ranks for 17 years and was looking to land with a major Division 1 program. He had offers, he said, from schools in the Pac-12 and Big 10, but "fell in love" with South Carolina and the Gamecock program.
"For me, it was the first job that has come across in the last few years that checked every box — community, the school community, the coaches, every box you could check off. It's the first school that I have had that happen," he said. "For me, it was just kind of a no-brainer."
After talking with Smith, Lisle said he was impressed with the Gamecock coach's selfless attitude and approach to her team.
"You could tell that she was a Gamecock first," he said. "You could tell right away that she is all about the Gamecocks and it wasn't about her and she wants the program to get better and she wants to win a national championship."
The Gamecocks, which have made the NCAA Tournament five straight seasons, return seven starters from last year's team, including four of the top five hitters. Freshman Mackenzie Boesel led the Gamecocks with a .341 average, 10 home runs and 41 RBI. Tiara Duffy, Krystan White and Alyssa VanDerveer also return, as does talented shortstop Kenzi Maguire, who was injured last season.
Lisle says he sees a lot of offensive potential with Smith's roster. At Menlo, he took over a team that had just 11 wins the year before and led them to a 30-20 record last season and a top-10 ranking in nearly every offensive category.
"This group has the same thing," he said. "I think all of them are great athletes and they got to the SEC for a reason. … I think all of them are the cusp of greatness. My goal is to go from good to great. I think this group has the potential to do that."
Two players in particularly caught Lisle's eye during his first glance at the roster and last season's statistics.
"It's always great when you see the leading hitter on the team is a freshman and not a senior. I was happy to see that," he said of Boesel.
He is also excited to work with VanDerveer, a Penn State transfer who hit eight home runs as a junior last year.
"She has tremendous power potential, so I will be excited to see what Matt can do with her power," Smith said. "She's a kid who steps into the box and makes a pitcher pretty nervous."
"With just a couple of tweaks, she is capable of big numbers," Lisle said.
Though the Gamecocks will have a young pitching staff, Smith believes she has the talent to contend in the SEC and return to the NCAA Tournament. She believes Lisle could help push them to the next level.
"We have brought in an extremely talented freshman class this year, so I think Matt is going to have a lot of swings that he enjoys working with," she said.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity and I think we are going to make the jump and we're going to make it fast," he said.
The Gamecocks will play an eight-game fall schedule to prepare for the 2018 spring season, beginning with a Sept. 24 doubleheader against Charlotte at Carolina Stadium.