Jan. 12, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
Fans of the Southeastern Conference proudly thump their chests for the success of the league and their favorite individual schools, and rightfully so. If you think it’s hard to climb to the top of the SEC mountain in sports such as football, baseball or women’s basketball, you should take a closer look at SEC softball.
“We had 10 SEC teams ranked in the top 25 in terms of RPI at the end of last season,” said South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith. “Two more were in the top 40. I think, top to bottom, softball may be even stronger than football.
“If you don’t want to compete, then you don’t want to be in this league. There has to be a piece of each student-athlete that loves competition, because every single game in this conference is a battle. Some people have said that every SEC game is like a Super Regional matchup. If you’re not excited about that as an athlete, then this is the wrong conference for you.”
As the league begins its 21st year of sponsoring softball as a championship sport, the SEC has truly become one of the most competitive leagues in the nation. Last year, 11 of the 13 schools that field a softball program qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-consecutive year. Eight of those teams were awarded national seeds for the 2016 NCAA Championship. Six advanced to the Super Regionals, and four reached the Women’s College World Series, after five schools had advanced to Oklahoma City the year before. In fact, the SEC has sent two or more teams to the WCWS every year since 2008. Eight different programs have made at least one WCWS appearance since 1997, including South Carolina.
Alabama won the SEC’s first softball national championship in 2012, while Florida defeated the Crimson Tide in the 2014 title game and repeated as champions in 2015.
“In the SEC, you’re playing the best of the best,” said South Carolina senior pitcher Nickie Blue. “You have to have the mental capacity to not take a pitch off. I like that. It’s very challenging.
“Being able to play softball in the SEC, you grow as a person, too. Like anyone, I’ve had times where I struggled, but I’ve learned how to work through it and succeed.”
I love how hard the schedule is. I think it makes me a better player and person because of the competitiveness.
While it sounds cliché, with as many as 11 SEC teams being ranked on any given week, there are no weekends off when it comes to a three-game series.
“I wanted to play in the SEC because it’s the most competitive conference,” said South Carolina sophomore infielder Kenzi Maguire. “I love how hard the schedule is. I think it makes me a better player and person because of the competitiveness. It’s a good atmosphere to be around.”
“Playing in the SEC pushes everyone to be their best,” Smith said. “You can’t just sit back on your laurels. All of the coaches are looking at the video of your team, and they’re picking apart your pitcher and the hitters. Both sides are really well prepared when it comes to scouting and game planning.”
The roots of this success on the softball diamond can be traced back to when the league committed to adding it as a championship sport.
“I think when the SEC decided to sponsor the sport, the schools came in strong with support,” Smith said. “They built facilities and stadiums. They went out and hired really good coaches. I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of the coaches in our league. I think they’re all people who are looking to raise the game.”
Success can also breed more success as top recruits obviously pay attention to the top programs. Smith noted that the increased exposure for SEC softball has also helped the league continue to get stronger.
“ESPN has come in and features a lot of SEC teams,” Smith said. “Now, with the SEC Network, it’s at an all-time high with the number of games that are being produced. That goes back to the commitment of the conference and the schools. The recruits want to play on the highest platform against the best teams with the most exposure.”
All of South Carolina’s home games are broadcast live on SEC Network+ if not picked for broadcast on ESPN or SEC Network. Some other SEC schools are doing the same, which permits nearly every Gamecocks softball game to be televised.
College softball was once ruled by teams from the western United States with UCLA (12) and Arizona (8) ranking No. 1 and No. 2 in NCAA Softball titles all time. Smith noted that her top selling point in recruiting is the people at South Carolina, but she said the excitement and success of other SEC sports is also a nice tool that helps her recruit nationally.
“The selling point for me to come here was the coaches and the history of the University,” said Blue, a Colorado native. “The coaches didn’t tell me things just because it’s what they thought I wanted to hear. They’re very up front and honest. That’s hard to come by in college sports.”
“You bring kids on campus in the fall, and they see a big-time football experience, and what the schools have put into the entire student-athlete experience,” Smith said. “We have the Dodie (Academic Enrichment Center) and all of the new residence halls and other new athletics facilities and weight rooms, so they can see the commitment we’ve made when they visit.”
As the Gamecocks prepare for the 2017 season on the heels of their fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, they know that finding success in the SEC directly translates to success in the postseason.
“If you win this league, you feel like you’re going to be in Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series in June,” Smith said. “I tell our team all the time that the SEC prepares you for the postseason. Every single game is such a grind that can come down to one swing, one pitch or one play. I think that’s why our league has been so successful in the postseason.”
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