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'Devastating' to 'fantastic:' How USC softball put aside skid to sweep Missouri

South Carolina's Krystan White, right, scores for the Gamecocks in Sunday's win over Missouri.
South Carolina's Krystan White, right, scores for the Gamecocks in Sunday's win over Missouri. dmclemore@thestate.com

As Alyssa VanDerveer trotted from second to third base, the party at home plate was starting to form. South Carolina softball players, dancing their way from the dugout to the batter’s box, joined hands and made a tunnel for VanDerveer to run through.

Her solo home run in the third inning helped USC earn a weekend sweep with of Missouri with a 6-2 win Sunday before a Beckham Field crowd of 1,511. The celebratory scene it produced was symbolic of this 2018 season.

The 12th-ranked Gamecocks are enjoying themselves as they continue to exceed expectations. Tabbed in the preseason to finish 12th in the SEC, Carolina (37-11 overall) won its 11th SEC game in 18 tries Sunday. It entered the day tied for third in the league standings.

That season-high four-game losing streak USC suffered from April 13-18? Seems like a distant memory now.

“(It feels) fantastic,” said Carolina coach Beverly Smith. “To come out and get three games on a really strong Missouri team is a great bounce-back and a great answer from our last series.”

South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith addresses the media after the Gamecocks’ 6-2 win over Missouri on April 22, 2018.

Facing No. 6 Florida last weekend in Gainesville, the Gamecocks produced one run in three losses. The skid hit four Wednesday with an eye-opening 3-2 home downer to Campbell – and its RPI of 151.

“It was, honestly, devastating,” said sophomore shortstop Kenzi Maguire. “Yes, we lost to Florida, they outplayed us, but losing to Campbell was really devastating. That hurt a little.

“I think it put us in the pathway that we needed to be in. I think we were a little happy with where we were, and getting shut down by Campbell got us going and got our bats going for this series. So, it was good. We needed that.”

This Mizzou sweep was the first in school history for South Carolina. The Tigers (24-24, 6-14) had won five of their previous six games at Beckham until the Gamecocks rallied for a 6-3 victory Friday. Down 3-1 in the fifth, Tiara Duffy hit a game-tying home run that smacked the scoreboard in the right. Four batters later, Alyssa Kumiyama gave USC the lead for good with a three-run shot.

No late-inning heroics were needed the next two afternoon as the Gamecocks outscored the Tigers 14-5, earning their third home SEC series win in three tries.

“I think that got our momentum going,” Maguire said of Friday’s fifth inning. “I think we found what we’ve been looking for and had been struggling with. It really showed in that fifth inning and I think we came out and kept it in these next two games, too.”

The Gamecocks took just two SEC series in all of 2017, a season that still led to an NCAA tournament appearance. The goal this year is to be a No. 1 seed for a Columbia regional, something that hasn’t happened since 2002.

Sunday’s victory means USC has two SEC sweeps in the same season. That last happened in 2007.

“I know what this team can do,” said sophomore right-hander Cayla Drotar, who improved to 16-4 Sunday by scattering two runs on six hits in seven innings. “Yeah, we lost four (in a row), but that doesn’t define us. I think we’re back on a roll.”

Four Gamecocks had two hits Sunday, including Maguire and VanDerveer. USC batted .351 for the series.

With two series left, Carolina has already matched a Smith-era (2011-present) high for SEC wins. It next travels to USC Upstate on Wednesday.

“Great softball, baseball players, you have to have short memories,” Smith said. “It’s a long season. And if we were gonna do the things we needed to do, we needed to get focused in the right direction.

“And that’s all I tried to do this week: Refocus the team, talk about the things we need to do to win.”