The South Carolina softball program opens its doors Wednesday to the SEC.
The conference tournament arrives in Columbia for the four-day event at Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field, the year-old $8 million facility.
The Gamecocks, who are playing host to the nationally televised tournament for the first time, welcome their conference foes to this 10-team event while enjoying a resurgence that would have been difficult to imagine four years ago.
USC coach Beverly Smith, a former North Carolina assistant, took the job as the once-proud program was coming off a 1-27 record in SEC play and 11-40 overall in the 2010 season. Her rebuilding efforts have gotten the Gamecocks to a 35-19 mark this season (11-13 SEC) and the No. 8 seed in the tournament.
Smith, who took the Gamecocks to the NCAA tournament last season, reflects back over those four seasons with a good feeling.
Im just really proud of our players and what theyve accomplished, Smith said. Every year theyve bought in and fought and believed. Every year weve continued to get better.
Smiths recruiting has been bolstered by the new ballpark, which she calls a huge sign of commitment to the sport from USCs athletics administration. Shell be showing it off to the SEC and an ESPN audience the next four days.
The timing is perfect for that, Smith said.
Smith replaced Hall of Fame coach Joyce Compton, who won 951 games at USC from 1987-2010 while taking the Gamecocks to 13 NCAA tournaments and two Womens College World Series.
South Carolinas veteran players have played a significant role in the turnaround. Redshirt junior pitcher Julie Sarratt, a Gaffney native, arrived on campus at the same time as Smith.
Weve been on a constant rise since the first year here, Sarratt said. Weve beat a lot of Top 25 teams this year. And then to host the SEC tournament here is just a perfect opportunity to play in front of our fans and show them what Carolina softball is now.
The Gamecocks have a 27-7 home record, their first full one in the new ballpark, which has the players confident about making a run in the single-elimination SEC tournament against some of the nations top teams.
Its a privilege. It really is, playing on our own dirt, senior infielder-outfielder Ashlyn Masters said. People are going to have to come through us to get what they want. Were not going to take that lightly. Were going to fight.
Senior shortstop Codee Yeske, a Lexington native who transferred from Presbyterian College after her freshman season, has watched the Gamecocks grow right along with Smith, who is assisted by Lisa Navas and Calvin Beamon.
Our coaches have been pretty consistent. Theyve always really believed in us and thought they recruited the right people to be able to do it, Yeske said. Just what has changed is our mentality as a team. The coaches have always had all the confidence in the world in us. We just needed to get some wins under our belt to really get the confidence in ourselves. Thats really the difference for the turnaround.
After going 2-2 at the NCAA regional in Austin, Texas, this past season, Smith expects USC to receive another bid on Sunday night.
I feel strong that well hear our name for postseason, Smith said. Weve had some RPI wins here, and beating Auburn (in a three-game series over the weekend) is going to help. Were in a better position this year than we were last year.
The Gamecocks, who are No. 32 in the NCAAs official RPI, open the SEC tournament against ninth-seeded Auburn (38-16-1). Masters hopes they can feed off the loud fans of a sold-out ballpark.
Yeske believes last seasons postseason experience and this seasons solid play will show the team and the stadium are both ready for prime time.
Were playing our best ball right now, and Wednesday night we get to come to our facility in front of our fans on national television and face the team we just took a series (from), Yeske said. Weve got to have a lot of confidence going into that. Our teams are very familiar with each other now. Its going to be a good ballgame.