Palmetto State Pitcher
University of South Carolina Freshman Cayla Drotar has begun her college softball career. It’s been a long wait for the former top recruit to get to Columbia.
For many 8th graders, where they will go to college never crosses their minds. By the time they are ready to make that decision - some four or five years later - many high school seniors are eager to get away from home.
Cayla Drotar was not a normal 8th grader. She was not a normal high school senior, either. And now, she’s an extraordinarily talented college freshman. It’s been six years since she committed to play softball at the University of South Carolina as an 8th grade student. Today, the Hartsville, South Carolina native finds herself pitching and hitting against the best college competition in the country.
Where did her journey to Columbia begin?
“I got a [softball] flyer in first grade, and told my dad, ‘Hey, I want to try this,’” says Drotar. “We literally went to Walmart and got a bat and a glove for like 15 dollars. Whenever I got on the field, I realized, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m actually good at this.”
“Good at this” is a bit of an understatement.
As a 7th grader in South Carolina, Cayla was technically eligible to play on the high school varsity softball team. However, she wasn’t only playing varsity; she was excelling. As an 8th grader, Cayla, who is more often referred to as “KK” by her coaches and teammates, led her Hartsville High School team to the AAA state championship. She was named First Team All-State, an honor that she would earn every year until she graduated from Hartsville.
“She was an all-around athlete. A utility player. I wasn’t afraid to put her anywhere on the field. She was the kind of kid that every coach wants,” says Jamie Horton, one of her high school coaches at Hartsville High School.
“In 7th or 8th grade, I knew Division I softball was going to be an option for her,” says Horton.
College coaches agreed.
As an 8th grader, Drotar had led Hartsville to a state championship game. There, she faced off against Carley Hoover, a rival pitcher who now boasts a 0.95 ERA in her junior year at Louisiana State University.
“I was in the box thinking to myself, ‘We are only up by a run and we can’t let this team catch up.’ She threw me an inside pitch… I swung, and hit a homerun. We beat them 4 to 2. It was one of the greatest feelings,” says Drotar.
Beverly Smith, the Head Coach at the University of South Carolina, remembers being there that day, watching “KK” display her talents on the diamond.
“She pitched the whole game, and hit the game-winning home run off [Carley] Hoover. At that moment, I thought, ‘This kid is special.’ Our relationship started then,” says Smith.
“Her pitch speed is what caught my eye. She threw harder as an 8th grader than some of the people I had on my [USC] staff at that time. She has an excellent bat, she plays the field, is very athletic… and really, has just been gifted with softball talent,” Smith says.
While she is gifted, “KK” credits her success to years of hard work and dedication to the sport she loves.
“I think my work ethic is ridiculous. I was always out in the yard pitching three or four days a week. [I was] hitting every day. I give a lot [of thanks] to my dad because he’s pushed me ever since I was a little girl to be the ball player and person I am today. Without him, I don’t know where I would be.”
That same work ethic propelled her to graduate Hartsville as one of the best high school softball players in state history. In addition to five All-State and All-Region selections, Cayla was recognized as South Carolina’s Gatorade State Player of the Year. She won the award three times — a feat that has never been duplicated.
In her final year of high school, Drotar faced Union County High in the state championship, a team that had knocked Hartsville out of the tournament in two consecutive years. Emerging victorious in her senior season will be a memory she always cherishes.
“Cayla was not going to let the previous two years stop her from ending her senior season without a state championship. She just didn’t give up, she was relentless on the mound and at the plate, and I think if she continues to have that mentality then she will be fine at Carolina,” says Horton, her high school coach.
“Winning that state championship in 2016 is what really means the most to me because we lost the three years prior. We were just determined. The fight I saw in my teammates and the fight I had was just amazing. I can’t even put it into words because we finally beat them,” says Drotar.
With all of her success, Drotar had plenty of options. FloSoftball.com ranked her as the #15 overall recruit in the Class of 2016.
Those options were from some of the top programs in college softball. As Drotar recounts the offers she received, “Georgia, Florida, LSU…” she smiles, knowing that there was only one place that was truly going to be her collegiate home.
“In 8th grade, I was in Colorado, playing [travel softball] against a big team out in California. There had to be 20 coaches out there, and right when I saw Coach Bev [Smith,] I knew in my heart that I wanted to be the best I can be, because I wanted her to be interested in me.”
Drotar’s wish had come true. Coach Beverly Smith was more than interested.
“She was my very first offer to an 8th grader. I often refer to her as ‘My 8th grader.’ She grew up loving the Gamecocks, and I knew that as we developed our relationship that she was someone who would contribute to the program,” Smith says.
That relationship between player and future coach was developed quickly, and Drotar, before becoming a high school student, or being able to legally drive, decided to commit to play softball for the Gamecocks.
“She had come to camps and clinics, had some unofficial visits. I didn’t think she would make her decision so quickly, as she had interest from a lot of different schools. In the end, it’s about fit. It was obvious that ‘KK’ was a good fit for me, my coaching style, our staff, and I think it was important for her to be close to home and in her home state,” says Smith.
The fit was right for “KK,” too.
“Coach Bev is like a mom to me… she made me feel comfortable, almost like home and I didn’t want that with any other coach,” says Drotar. “When I committed, it was like a dream come true, since I was a little girl up in those stands watching as a fan. Now I get to play and live out my dream.”
Her high school coach was not surprised by Cayla’s decision.
“She’s always been a South Carolina fan, and coming from the state of South Carolina, we have a lot of pride in our athletics all over the state. I think she wanted to be able to contribute to that on a hometown level, and I think Carolina felt like home to her,” says Horton.
Since that verbal commitment to the Gamecocks, Coach Smith has eagerly awaited the day Drotar would finally don the Garnet and Black.
“Since she’s committed, I’ve literally waited six years for her to get here.”
Now, in the 2017 season, Drotar has finally made it to Columbia. She is on the roster, and has managed to find her way into the pitching circle amongst a senior-laden pitching staff that is both talented and experienced.
To the surprise of few, she has found early success, pitching five innings in a win over Florida State, the top-ranked team in NCAA Softball.
Moving forward, expectations are high for the girl that has always called South Carolina home.
“The expectation is that she is going to be ready to lead us in the circle next season,” says Smith.
Coincidentally, high expectations are something Drotar has of herself as well.
“We want to make it to the SEC tournament, regionals, super regionals and make it to the national championship. For myself, I want to be the best I can be and not let my personal stuff stand in the way of my success on the field,” Drotar says.
As they pursue those successes, expect Drotar to be leading the charge.
“I’m blessed. I couldn’t be more thankful for what God gave me and just thinking that… that one flyer I took home as a little girl brought me here today.”
In the next few years, there will be other young girls that walk into Carolina Softball Stadium. As they leave, they may just be asking their parents if they can play softball, too.
This time, it won’t be a flyer. It will be a game program, and don’t be surprised if the girl from Hartsville is on the cover.
Six years ago, she was an 8th grader with an abundance of talent and the college offers to match it.
Now, Cayla Drotar is here, at home, at the University of South Carolina, right where she believes she belongs.