Jan. 25, 2012
by Koby Padgett
In head coach Beverly Smith's first year, the trajectory of South Carolina's softball program changed dramatically, increasing the team's win total by 15 games and making the 12th-best turnaround from 2010 to 2011 in the NCAA's top division. With only two starters gone from last year's position players, the Gamecocks hope to climb higher in Smith's second year. This starts a three-part series previewing the 2012 Gamecocks. First up are the outfielders.
COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina made one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA Division I last season, and a large part of the success was the outfield. The Gamecocks saw improvements across the board from their three starting outfielders, all who started somewhere in 2010. And they look to continue that improvement as a new year dawns.
"I think we're very blessed with the outfielders we have," said Gamecock assistant coach Calvin Beamon, who works closely with the outfielders and hitters. "We have a very solid outfield. After getting to know them the past full year, we have a much clearer picture of what we need to get better at now. We've been able to attack that more this year."
The trio of seniors Lauren Lackey and Kaitlin Westfall and junior Hannah Milks started 155 of a possible 168 games, the highest percentage of our three groups. And defensively, they are as solid as they come. The trio combined for 16 of the 19 assists made by the outfield last year, the most in records dating back to 1998. With speed and strong arms, the trio can cover ground and keep opponents from taking extra bases. Westfall's eight assists, all coming from left field, ranks second for a single player in the same timespan. And each brings something unique to the lineup on the offensive side, with Lackey's speed, Westfall's power and Milks' bunting game.
The senior Lackey brings back the highest batting average from last season, hitting .350, while also tying for second on the team with 15 stolen bases. But assistant coach Calvin Beamon says Lackey was on the brink of much more with her speed. "She's a stolen-base threat and has improved a lot in her bunting game. If she could have done that last year, she would've had a chance at hitting .400. We worked hard on that with her." Lackey once again could occupy either of the top two spots or ninth, where she was very comfortable a year ago and helped reset the order.
Westfall, another senior, saw her power blossom during the year, leading the team with a .473 slugging percentage and five homers. While she didn't repeate the performance, she was the Gamecocks' top hitter in SEC play during her sophomore year and will once again be relied upon in RBI situations. "(She's) going to be our middle-of-the-order bat who we look to produce runs for us and come through in clutch situations," added Beamon.
Milks, a junior, has a dynamic offensive game. She led the team with 16 stolen bases a year ago and added a team-best 10 bunt hits and 10 sacrifices. But Milks also has power, hitting three home runs and six doubles last year. About Milks, Beamon commented, "She has a mind for the game. We've seen a power increase from her as well. Her mentality is a lot better, so I think she's going to be able to produce a little bit more."
If there's competition for any starting job, it is in right. The challenge comes from sophomore Chelsea Hawkins, who gets to concentrate on the outfield after spending her first year as the Gamecocks' backup catcher and top bat off the bench. Hawkins showed power in the final weekend of 2011, hitting a home run at LSU. With a year of hard work, Hawkins may see it pay off, either in right or at the designated player spot.
But the Gamecocks are not just strong on top, as nearly every position is two deep with a quality player supporting the starter. Behind Westfall is perhaps the fastest Gamecock on the roster, senior Jackie Slawson. The team's top pinch runner in 2011, Slawson showed her speed in her limited number of at bats. In the right situations, Slawson could make an appearance as the designated player.
In back of Lackey in center is freshman Kristen Struett. The Westminster, Calif., native already shows signs of hard work, adding muscle in the fall since coming to campus. Beamon had glowing remarks on her defensive ability, saying "I feel (she) has a natural knack in center field for going and getting a ball and loves to lay out to do that." Struett will also see time for the Gamecocks in the circle.
Another outfielder looking to make her mark is redshirt senior Kaela Jackson. While a leg issue may limit her, Jackson is an important member of the roster. "Kaela is our team's fire and passion and brings it every single day regardless of what adversity she's facing," says Beamon. "She's reaping the benefits of all her hard work. She is a much more complete hitter this year who is going to be a lot more prepared handle the different types of pitchers she might face in conference."
Jackson and Hawkins lead the Gamecock outfield options who could also see time at designated player, but they will be challenged by sophomore transfer Codee Yeske. An All-Big South player at Presbyterian last year, Yeske may possess the most pure power on the team. The non-starters out of the designated player battle will give Smith options for powerful right-hand bats in pinch-hitting situations. Other players who could challenge for at bats at DP include freshmen Olivia Lawrence and Lacey Rother. Lawrence is a left-handed hitter who swings for power, while Rother's a right-handed hitter who should develop power in the future as well.
Next up in the series: the infield
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