May 18, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
The South Carolina softball team is in familiar territory as it heads to Tallahassee, Fla., for the 2016 NCAA Regional Tournament. It’s not only the fourth straight year that the Gamecocks have reached postseason in six years under head coach Beverly Smith, but it’s also the third straight year that South Carolina is in the Tallahassee Regional.
“I’m excited about going back to Florida State,” Smith said. “There is something to be said about familiarity with the complex and where we are going. I’ve explained to the team that we have some goals that we have yet to achieve there. We have yet to play Florida State in the regional, and we have yet to be in the finals there. So it is certainly our goal to be playing in the final of the regional this year.”
Smith also quipped that going back to Tallahassee made things easier on Kacey Friedman, South Carolina’s director of operations, because she already knew which restaurants and hotels to check out.
“I’ve received a lot of emails and texts saying that maybe I should get a condo in Tallahassee,” Smith laughed.
The familiarity with their postseason destination should not be confused with disappointment in not playing in a different venue. Instead, the Gamecocks are dialed in to the opportunity that is before them.
“We’re really excited to go to FSU actually,” said junior first baseman Kaylea Snaer. “We’ve been there the last two years, and we haven’t taken care of business. It’s going to be our third time there, but I know it’s going to be our best time.”
“I’m really excited,” added senior catcher Jordan Bizzell. “I think it’s a great opportunity to go to Tallahassee again because we’re very familiar with the field and everything else.”
“I’m proud of this senior class because they don’t know anything but going to the postseason,” Smith said. “I hope that this is the team that we are talking about that has achieved more than the teams in the past have. While the building blocks are there, we still have some big goals we want to accomplish, and certainly, winning the regional is one of them.”
The SEC has proven to be gauntlet once again, and 11 of the 13 league schools that field a softball team made it to the NCAA Tournament this year. The Gamecocks picked up a little momentum in the final stretch of the regular season by earning a win over (then) No. 4 ranked Alabama and a pair of victories over (then) No. 16 Missouri. Smith is less concerned with location, and more concerned, and pleased, with how her team is playing going into the postseason.
“I’m just happy where our team is now mentality-wise,” Smith said. “I think we’re healthy going into the postseason. Our team is playing with a lot of confidence. We have had some good wins here in the late part of the season. I just like the mentality we have going into this tournament better than we have the last two seasons.”
Our team is battle-tested through the SEC. There is not much they are going to see in the NCAA regional that we haven’t seen in conference play.
Playing in a conference with nine of its 13 teams ranked nationally, the Gamecocks won’t likely be shocked by anything they see in the postseason.
“It’s helped tremendously,” junior pitcher Nickie Blue said of playing in the SEC. “We’ve seen every type of hitter. We’ve seen the big, power girls. We’ve seen the small slappers who are super-fast down the line. I think we’re prepared for anything. It’s just a matter of communicating who is up in each situation and knowing where to put the ball.”
“Our team is battle-tested through the SEC,” Smith said. “There is not much they are going to see in the NCAA regional that we haven’t seen in conference play. We have eight SEC teams that are hosting (NCAA regionals). They get to play at home, and I think the players recognize if we want our scenario to change, we’re going to have to play into that.”
As the NCAA Tournament begins on Friday with South Carolina as a No. 3 seed taking on the No. 2 seed from South Florida, the Gamecocks are looking to take the next step and advance to the super regional.
“It’s been our goal all season long to get to supers,” Smith said. “I’m confident that this team can do it. We have certainly faced teams the caliber of Florida State going through the SEC. South Florida has done nothing but improve this season. We know we have to pitch well, play good defense and then come up with some timely hitting.”
While seemingly an underdog on paper as a No. 3 seed in the four-team double elimination regional, South Carolina did have 25th best RPI in the nation this season, and seven of the No. 2 seeds in the NCAA tournament have RPIs ranked behind the Gamecocks. Smith knows that what happens this year can not only impact her team, but also the perception of the program on a larger scale.
“Winning changes the expectations of the players, and it shows them they can do it,” Smith said. “There is also that public perception, and public opinion matters. It’s about how people are talking about you in social media and things like that. You earn that by winning. We certainly want the rest of the world to agree with how good we think our team is.”
“It’s very important to win it,” Bizzell said. “I think a lot of people might underestimate us and don’t think we’ll make it out of the regional. I think we have a great opportunity. We’re putting forth all of our effort. We’re locked in for seven innings for every pitch.”
The venue is familiar, and so is South Carolina’s first round opponent in South Florida. The Gamecocks defeated the Bulls 7-1 in the second game of the regular season, but Smith knows that game was a long time ago. Interestingly enough, in South Carolina’s first trip to Tallahassee in this string of NCAA Tournaments back in 2014, it was South Florida which defeated the Gamecocks twice to end their season. For 2016, a change of venue for the Gamecocks would mean the third time is the charm in Tallahassee, and Smith is confident her team is prepared to play well against the tournament field.
“This has been a team that has learned all season long,” Smith said. “We’ve taken a lot from our wins, and even from our losses to make our team better.”
“For me, it’s a little chip on my shoulder,” said senior outfielder Alaynie Page. “I think it’s a great opportunity to go down there and showcase what we have. We’re very confident. We got to the NCAAs when I was a freshman, and that was a big step. Now it’s just us believing we can get through it. There are just small differences between us and the top teams in the country. So if we play our ball, we can make it to supers.”
First pitch is Friday at noon.
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