Only in SEC softball could the coach of a team picked to finish 12th out of 13 squads in her conference say her goal was to make the College World Series — and not sound completely, wildly overconfident.
But that’s the situation South Carolina and coach Beverly Smith find themselves in as they start the 2018 season Friday. The Gamecocks have made five consecutive NCAA tournaments and received votes in preseason polls, landing just outside the top 25. Yet the SEC remains the top conference in the sport, and so USC, with its seven unproven freshmen and inexperienced pitching staff, is projected to be near the back of the pack.
“A couple things to remember,” Smith said at the team’s media day on Jan. 25. “The No. 8 team in the conference last year (Ole Miss) made a run through, won the SEC tournament and went onto super regionals. We had (three) SEC teams in (the Women’s College World Series in) Oklahoma City in June. And that’s our goal. We gotta compete in our league, at the top of our league. You’re in the top of the league, you’re going to be competing in Oklahoma City in June, and that’s the goal for our players, that’s why they chose to be here at South Carolina.”
The year before Ole Miss’s surprising run, the eighth-place team in the conference, Georgia, made it all the way to Oklahoma City, too. And in the preseason polls for 2018, nine SEC teams were ranked. The point being, in the SEC, pretty much every program is elite.
“If you go back and look, the SEC is the place, if you want to play softball at the highest level, you want to play in the SEC. So for us to pull players nationally ... wherever we want to go to find talent, girls, if they want to play at the highest level, they want to play on the stage of the SEC,” Smith said.
That national appeal is evidenced by South Carolina’s freshman class, one of the biggest Smith has had in eight years — six states ranging from California to New Jersey are represented.
Those freshmen will have the chance to compete and contribute early, Smith said.
“Jana Johns, for me, is the freshman who stood out the most in the fall,” Smith said. “She’s likely to start at third base and be an everyday player for us and put up great numbers offensively as well. Alyssa Kumiyama is another one who I think will be a threat at the plate.”
But it’s pitching where Smith will really need freshmen to step up, as the Gamecocks return just one starter and one reliever from last season. Freshman Kelsey Oh will take one rotation spot, junior transfer Dixie Raley will take the third and freshman Victoria Galvan will come in as relief.
“Offensively and defensively, I think we’re going to be a super exciting team to watch. I think our only question mark lies in the circle, and that’s not for lack of talent, that’s just lack of experience,” Smith said.
On offense, Smith pointed to two people in particular as the reasons for her excitement — sophomore infielder Mackenzie Boezel, who led the team in almost every major offensive statistic last year, and new hitting coach Matt Lisle, an MLB consultant who has built up a Twitter following that’s bigger than any other South Carolina coach outside of Will Muschamp.
Senior catcher Jordyn Augustus said at media day that Lisle and his offensive approach have meshed well with the team.
What: USC softball vs. East Carolina and Hofstra
When: 11:15 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.
Where: Florida International in Miami, Fla.
Last season’s record: 34-25