Cayla Drotar is living her dream as a South Carolina softball player
The mere sight of Beverly Smith made Cayla Drotar googly-eyed. She was a middle schooler in her native Hartsville then, still years before she became a star two-way player for Smith’s South Carolina softball team.
“I was 13,” Drotar recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Dad, there’s Coach Bev!’”
Drotar’s pre-USC profile reads like this: three-time state player of the year, five-time all-state performer and several prep All-American nods. Such talent attracted Smith to Hartsville. It didn’t take long for her to bring Drotar back to Columbia.
“She’ll go down as maybe one of the easiest recruits we’ve had,” Smith said with a grin.
Drotar is a lifelong Gamecock fan. She committed to Smith the summer before she entered eighth grade.
Yes, that early.
“In the world of early recruiting, when you find the players who are a fit for you athletically and talent-wise, who grow up Gamecocks fans, it’s the perfect match,” Smith said. “And she grew up a Gamecock fan. We loved her from the start, and it’s been a great fit.”
The 12th-ranked Gamecocks (42-11, 14-7 SEC) enter this final weekend of the regular season at No. 20 Kentucky (29-17, 6-14) with a good chance at capturing a first-round bye in next week’s league tournament in Missouri. They’ve already set a Smith-era record for wins and are firmly in the mix for a No. 1 seed and NCAA regional host for the first time since 2002.
The USC roster is made up of mostly out-of-state products. California’s Mackenzie Boesel leads the Gamecocks in batting average (.360), New Jersey’s Alyssa VanDerveer leads them in home runs (13) and Florida’s Kenzi Maguire leads them in on-base percentage (.451). In fact, the Palmetto State is represented just by freshman Alex Fulmer (Little Mountain), senior Krystan White (Chesterfield) and Drotar, a sophomore.
But the natives have value, too. White is Carolina’s everyday first baseman. Drotar leads the team in pitching wins (18) and is second in home runs (eight).
“She bleeds garnet and black,” Smith said. “And I think that’s what’s nice about the mixture of our team — some being from out of state. I think it’s really important to have the South Carolina kids who can really talk about what the Gamecock way is and what the Gamecock pride is, and share that with some of the players who didn’t grow up with it.”
On April 20 against Mizzou, Drotar had to leave in the first inning after a ball was hit back at her in the circle. It was labeled a “right leg bruise,” and it forced her out of the next day’s lineup.
“I wanted to be out here so bad,” Drotar said. “And to sit out the whole entire game, it killed me. I sat my whole freshman fall, and I was like, ‘No, not this again.’ I was like, ‘I got to be OK.’
“So I was in The Roost that night and that morning and I was like, ‘I’m gonna play tomorrow.’”
On April 22, Drotar threw a complete game as South Carolina completed a sweep of the Tigers with a 6-2 win.
It’s fair to say some state pride kicked in to help Drotar’s quick recovery.
“It’s awesome,” Drotar said. “You have expectations when you’re little, and then to come here and fulfill them, it’s awesome. … I go to bed every night, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I actually did this.’ Like, I live this every day, and it’s awesome.”
Drotar likely will get the ball Friday in Lexington. First pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m. The series will be streamed on SEC Network Plus.