Strength of SEC Prepares Gamecocks for Postseason
Playing in the nation’s toughest conference has the South Carolina softball team well-prepared for the postseason. Coach Beverly Smith’s Gamecocks are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year as they’ll play in the Tucson, Ariz., regional this weekend, and all 12 of the other SEC softball teams earned bids to the postseason as well.
“I think it’s a huge feather in our cap to have all 13 teams in,” Smith said. “Everyone can recognize how hard our jobs are in that every weekend is just a grind. So I was really glad to see all of the teams rewarded for playing such a tough schedule throughout the year.”
“Having all 13 teams get in is a testament to the grind that the SEC is,” said senior pitcher Nickie Blue. “Especially for our younger players who play key roles on our team, I think playing in the SEC was the best preparation for them to come and perform for regionals.”
“Playing in the SEC, we play ranked teams all of the time,” said senior first baseman Kaylea Snaer. “You have to beat ranked teams when you play in the SEC. We want to compete with everybody, and we want to be a team that everybody wants to try to beat as well.”
South Carolina’s resume speaks for itself with a top 25 RPI, which includes several big non-conference wins over eventual conference regular season champions, including (then) №2/1 Florida State, Furman, and USC Upstate. But playing in the SEC is what helped make this team battle tested. South Carolina earned seven wins against ranked SEC foes. Of the 24 games South Carolina played against SEC opponents this year, 21 were against ranked teams, including 11 games against schools ranked in the top 10 at the time. The Gamecocks got hot at the right time winning their final two series of the season, taking two out of three at №22 Georgia and two of three at home against №18 LSU.
“Towards the end of the season it really came together, and we want to carry that in to the postseason,” Snaer said.
“We each found a little confidence in ourselves and each other,” Blue added. “Once we believe in each other and trusted each other, we were able to come out and beat those big teams, pitch by pitch.”
“We’ve really been getting the pitching performances that we’ve needed,” Smith said. “I think our players have been loose and have been swinging free.”
Coach Bev has done a good job of recruiting people who really want to play for what we’re trying to build here. It has just grown so much.
Southeastern Conference fans take a lot of pride in the success of the league in all sports, and with all due respect to the league’s top to bottom strength in sports such as football and baseball, SEC softball should be at the top of the list. In addition to having every team from the SEC reach the NCAA Tournament this year, eight earned national seeds. That’s not a surprise however, as the league sent 11 teams to the tournament last year for the fourth straight year and also boasted eight national seeds.
“I’ve been here for seven years now, and every year my team has become better and better,” Smith said. “And so has the league. You just see every team, from top to bottom, continue to get stronger and stronger.”
“The talent has really grown here,” Snaer said. “Coach Bev has done a good job of recruiting people who really want to play for what we’re trying to build here. It has just grown so much.”
Four SEC teams reached the Women’s College World Series in 2016, after five schools had advanced to Oklahoma City the year before. 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.
After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive year, the Gamecocks are hoping to take the next step and advance to the Super Regional, but they know it won’t be easy playing at the home of the №2 overall seed, Arizona, along with St. Francis (Pa.) and New Mexico State.
“It’s certainly a challenging regional,” Smith said. “It’s going to be about pitching and great defense, for sure. It will be about timely hitting, too. We’ve been senior led all season long. We’ve had really strong senior leadership. You’re starting to see our depth come alive. We have some young players that have put together some really nice seasons. I give our seniors a lot of credit for bringing them along.”
“Playing in the SEC, we play all of those ranked teams,” Snaer said. “So playing those top seeds is just fun, actually.”
The Gamecocks take on St. Francis (Pa.) in Friday’s first round of the NCAA Tournament beginning at 7 p.m. at Arizona’s Hillenbrand Stadium.