Kennedy Clark called it a tease.
For all the good South Carolina softball did in 2018 — the 49 wins, an NCAA regional championship, the runner-up finish in the SEC Tournament, the school-record for home runs, the school-record for fielding percentage — the Gamecocks came up two games short of a dream.
“We were so close to where we wanted to be,” said the senior left fielder.
USC, which begins its season Thursday in Mexico, wants to end 2019 in Oklahoma City at the College World Series.
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When Coach Beverly Smith announced such a goal at the beginning of last season, it came shortly after the Gamecocks were picked to finish 12th in the SEC. All they did in the four months that followed was become one of the country’s biggest surprises. Carolina’s run went all the way to the super regional round of the NCAA Tournament, where it was swept by Arizona State in Tempe.
The Gamecocks proved last year they can defy expectations. What do they have for an encore?
“Last year we were picked 12th in the league,” Smith said during the team’s media day Jan. 23. “And that was a motivation for us, we could kind of be the underdog. And I don’t think we get that luxury this year.
“So this team recognizes we’re going to go into situations where we might have a target on our back and we gotta go in and play with that confidence and pressure, if you will. And our team understands that. I think they understand that all games count as one and we gotta go in with our best game every time.”
League coaches wisely think better of Carolina this season. The Gamecocks are pegged for a fourth place finish in the SEC.
Seems about right for a bunch that returns its full pitching rotation from last year. Kelsey Oh, a reigning All-SEC Freshman Team member, is back after posting a 14-5 record and 1.92 ERA. Same with Dixie Raley (14-5, 2.09) and Cayla Drotar (21-7, 2.25).
Smith said the addition of talented freshmen Karly Heath and left-hander Rachel Vaughn gives USC the option of a rare five-pitcher rotation.
“It’s certainly unique for me,” said the eighth-year coach. “I haven’t had that since I’ve been here. Having a staff of what I would consider three No. 1s last year, it really allows you for great matchups. You can match up pitchers against certain opponents. We didn’t wear out our pitching.
“And I think, as you saw in the World Series last year, teams that were successful had a staff or they had a strong 2 and a 3. The fact that we have five, it just gives us so many options and I think our group has really bought into the philosophy of a staff and understanding that Dixie could open with Kelsey Oh to close and that’s a great matchup.”
Clark, who batted .279 with five home runs and 27 RBIs last season, is a featured piece of the lineup. The core of the infield — including All-SEC second baseman Mackenzie Boesel (.360) and shortstop Kenzi Maguire (.315) — is also back.
“I think we’ve seen this 2019 team come in highly motivated,” Smith said. “They’ve come in very confident because they recognize the success they had last year.
“But let me tell you, they earned it. They worked for it last season, and their work ethic hasn’t changed. This team works extremely hard. Obviously we have to put it together on game day, score runs on game day and continue to play good defense and pitch well.”
First pitch comes against BYU at 11 a.m. Thursday in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.
“One of the things we talked about coming into this season was how we are a new team,” Raley said, “it’s a new year and last year’s success doesn’t guarantee us anything this year. So (we’re) coming together with our new players that have been added and just building our own team for this year.”
South Carolina softball
Last year’s record: 49-17; No. 9 national seed; Super Regional runner-up
Key returnees: RHP Kelsey Oh (14-5, 1.92 ERA), RHP Cayla Drotar (21-7, 2.25), SS Kenzi Maguire (.315, 2 HRs, 32 RBIs), 2B Mackenzie Boesel (.360, 8 HRs, 47 RBIs)
Key departures: IF Krystan White (.253, 3 HRs, 24 RBIs), C Alyssa VanDerveer (.262, 14 HRs, 40 RBIs)
First game: 11 a.m. Thursday against BYU in Mexico (five games total at Puerto Vallarta Challenge)
Home opener: The Gamecock Invitational begins Feb. 15. USC hosts UNC Greensboro (2:30 p.m.) and Ohio (5 p.m. ) that day.