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Surging South Carolina softball takes pride in leading SEC in this painful statistic

What Beverly Smith said about USC goal of hosting NCAA regional

South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith talks USC’s hot start and what goals remain for the Gamecocks.
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South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith talks USC’s hot start and what goals remain for the Gamecocks.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kenzi Maguire spotted Matt Lisle entering the room. So she turned up her volume and repeated what she had just told a reporter.

“Yeah,” she said with a grin, “HE HAS NOT FOLLOWED THROUGH WITH THAT!”

The conversation just outside the South Carolina softball batting cage Tuesday was of pain and ice cream. Maguire is the 11th-ranked Gamecocks’ star shortstop who is second in the SEC in a statistic that helps describe the program’s change under Lisle, the first-year hitting coach.

The 5-foot-5 Maguire is behind only teammate Jana Johns (19) in the number of times she’s been hit by a pitch (14). South Carolina (34-7) leads all SEC teams in that category with 60. Mississippi State is second — with 39.

“What’s funny is I keep promising that after a certain amount of hit by pitches, I would buy them ice cream or something like that,” Lisle said. “I haven’t come up with what the thing is yet. Now, I feel like I owe a ton of desserts.”

Maguire, speaking after Lisle, hasn’t forgotten the preseason promise.

“We love ice cream,” she said. “We’ll do anything for ice cream.”

So perhaps USC players have yet to receive their tasty reward, but their sacrifice in the batter’s box has caused satisfaction elsewhere. For example: The Gamecocks are off to their best 40-game start since the College World Series season of 1997.

South Carolina, under the analytics-savvy Lisle, wear “OBP is life” shirts during pregame batting practice sessions.

“It’s however you get on,” said Carolina head coach Beverly Smith. “Whether you get hit by a pitch, you walk, you get a hit, you get a home run, OBP (on-base percentage) is life.

“I think Matt’s done a nice job in selling that you can see the teams with the highest on-base percentage are generally the ones that win the game. You look at the on-base percentage of the teams in the World Series, it’s extremely higher than the people who aren’t there.

“So it’s just been celebrated. Willing to stand in and get hit takes a lot of guts, and our kids have it.”

The Gamecocks were hit by pitches 85 times in 2016, a program record. This year’s team is on pace to break that by the end of its stay in next month’s SEC tournament. The individual USC record for HBP was set in 2013 by Dana Hathorn with 25. Johns is on pace to top that, and Maguire’s not far behind.

The team program record for on-base percentage is .391 (2015). The 2018 squad stands at .375.

“I kind of gave them the idea that I get just as excited by a hit-by-pitch as I do a double,” Lisle said. “I just kind of sold them on the idea of being tough and wearing one. So we kind of came in with the mentality that some of our hitters are going to get on top of the plate — we’re not going to get cheated in — and we’re not going to get out of the way.

“I think the whole team just embraced this mentality. They even have a chant of ‘We don’t move!’ It’s just the whole idea of we don’t get out of the way. If you come inside, we’re going to wear it.”

Maguire, the reigning SEC player of the week who leads the Gamecocks in batting average (.378), OBP (.476) and stolen bases (nine), said she has no battle scars to prove her commitment to Lisle’s message.

“I don’t bruise,” she said. “I like getting hit.”

Perhaps as much as she enjoys ice cream. If only Lisle would follow through …

“I will eventually,” he said back to Maguire.

USC travels to No. 6 Florida this weekend.