Feb. 2, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
Twenty years ago, South Carolina softball enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in program history after winning the inaugural SEC Championship on the way to a 63-5 record and berth in the 1997 Women’s College World Series. South Carolina is honoring the 20th anniversary of that team throughout the 2017 season, culminating in reunion festivities the weekend of April 21-23.
“The players genuinely liked each other and enjoyed each other’s company,” said former South Carolina head coach Joyce Compton (1987-2010). “I think that really helped as far as what we accomplished. I knew we had really good players going into the season, and the nucleus of the team was seniors. We knew we had a top pitcher, but I think everybody just played to their abilities. You always hope for that, but you’re never sure everybody will.”
“We absolutely loved being together,” said Kendra McCutcheon Stout, a sophomore infielder on the ’97 team. “We had many road trips and just had a blast together, on and off the field. We built so many friendships that we continue to have, even after all of these years.”
“What made that team fun is that it was a team of ‘gamers,’” added Kim Pietro, a sophomore outfielder on the ’97 team. “We knew how to play the game, and we knew how to win. Nothing really got in our way. You hear a lot about team chemistry, and that’s important, but we were also loaded up with talent.”
After starting the season 2-2, the Gamecocks rattled off a NCAA-record 38 game win streak, with 27 of those games played on the road.
“I think there was pressure building, but once Tennessee beat us we went on a 23 game win streak to answer that,” Compton said.
“That was unbelievable,” All-American pitcher Trinity Johnson said of the streak. “I remember losing the winning streak, and then finishing the rest of the (regular season) without losing again. It was devastating, but at the same time, it took some of the pressure off to keep the winning streak going. It re-lit the fire for us to keep coming back and showed us that we were not invincible.”
College softball was dominated by pitching at the time, and South Carolina had the right pieces in place.
“Back in 1997, it was really a pitching and defense dominated game,” Compton said. “Pitching is the name of the game, and we were fortunate. Tennessee and LSU were the next best teams in the league as far as pitching went. The offense wasn’t as big as it is now with all of the changes with the bats and equipment.”
What made that team fun is that it was a team of ‘gamers.'
The 1997 season was the first year that the SEC sponsored softball as a championship sport, and the Gamecocks were proud to take home the inaugural regular season and tournament titles.
“It was huge because nobody else can say that, forever,” Johnson said. “It was a big deal to be able to take that. It’s still such an honor.”
“It was a huge deal,” Compton said. “I don’t know how much the kids knew it, but we were playing under pressure from the time the SEC put softball in the conference because we were the established team. We went into the season with the expectations that we were going to win the conference. You always want to have those expectations. Once the season got going and the players saw that we were a pretty good team, I’m sure they wanted to win everything.”
South Carolina’s pitching staff dominated its opponents that year. Led by Johnson, who would go on to win the Honda Award as the nation’s top player as well as being unanimously selected as the SEC Player of the Year after leading the nation in ERA (0.38) and strikeouts per seven innings (11.5), the Gamecocks surrendered only 37 earned runs in 68 games for a team earned run average of 0.56.
“She was under a lot of pressure,” Compton said. “She may not have realized it at the time. When you’re playing all those 1-0 games, the pressure is on the pitcher.”
That being said, Johnson wasn’t the only pitcher on the team who helped make the special season possible.
“Nikki Beers was a great junk-ball pitcher, and so was Sky Brown,” Pietro said. “Trinity was a great rise ball pitcher. Sometimes those other guys get overlooked, but they had a tremendous impact, as did our catching staff.”
With Johnson (34-4, 0.38 ERA), Nikki Beers (15-1, 0.56 ERA), and Sky Brown (14-0, 0.96 ERA) mowing down opposing hitters, Compton knew that if the Gamecocks could score one or two runs, they had a great chance to win.
“There wasn’t much pressure to get the key hit, because T.J. (Johnson) and Nikki complemented each other quite well,” Compton said. “They just set the tone for the rest of the team. A great pitching staff makes your defense pretty good. T.J. is getting 10 strikeouts per game, and that takes a lot of pressure off the defense where they only have to make 11 plays (outs).”
The team was very talented outside the pitching circle as well. Compton said what stood out the most to her was the comradery among the players.
“They were good kids and good players,” Compton said. “The whole senior class could be looked at as leaders. Certainly Kendra (McCutcheon) at shortstop really held the defense together. You had (Kim Pietro) out in centerfield, who did a great job offensively and defensively. You had Tina (Plew) and Chanda (Lee) with speed and defense. They all worked hard and had good attitudes.”
“Every player on the team was committed to being ‘in it to win it,’” McCutcheon Stout said. “That was the quote we used all year. It was just a great passionate group of girls to be around.”
Lee led the Gamecocks by batting .354 and swiping 31 bases, while Plew was second in hitting (.338) and stolen bases (19). She also led the team with 54 RBI.
After winning the SEC Tournament Championship, the Gamecocks hosted the NCAA Regional and posted three straight shutouts over UNC Greensboro (once) and Kansas (twice) to advance to the Women’s College World Series.
“I was just so happy for the team,” Compton said. “I think a lot of pressure was taken off at that point. I think the players were really happy for what they accomplished, but of course they were disappointed that we didn’t play well at the World Series. We had beaten both of those teams in the regular season, and then lost to them in the World Series.”
South Carolina lost to Washington and Michigan at the WCWS after defeating both of those teams during the 38 game win streak.
While she has many memories of that 1997 team, Compton is quick to point out that the history of success isn’t unique to that one team and has carried over even after she retired.
“It’s not just the ’97 team,” Compton said. “It’s the culture of Carolina softball, period. Whether it’s the ’97 kids or the 2007 kids or the 2013 kids, it’s all a part of it. Yes, the ’97 team was special, but it’s all part of what South Carolina softball is all about.”
Twenty years later, the members of the 1997 team are proud of the special place they have in program history.
“Not many teams can say they won 63 games,” Compton said.
And no other team can say it was the first SEC Champion.
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