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USC softball team feels at home in NCAA Tournament

South Carolina pitcher Nickie Blue
South Carolina pitcher Nickie Blue tglantz@thestate.com

The South Carolina softball team knows what to expect with the start of the NCAA tournament Friday.

Returning to Tallahassee, Fla., for a regional for the second consecutive season, the Gamecocks have played two of the four teams in the regional this season.

Although the Gamecocks (37-20) lost to UCF 4-1 in the home opener at Carolina Softball Stadium and lost to FSU 4-3 in 10 innings in an early-season tournament in California, USC coach Beverley Smith believes that familiarity can only help her team.

“We’re just going back and seeing where their teams have changed over the last couple of months,” Smith said. “For the players, it will be the familiarity with the pitchers.“

USC faces UCF (48-7) Friday at 10 a.m. at FSU’s JoAnne Graf Field, with FSU (45-12), the No. 9 national seed, playing Dartmouth (25-16) in the early afternoon.

“A lot of the nerves that come with a regional are going to a new place and having to get acquainted very fast,” USC sophomore pitcher Nickie Blue said. “With all the players we have returning and this being our second straight year in the same place, I think all those nerves will go away very quickly. We’ll be able to play the game of softball that we know we can play.”

Blue (20-7, 1.74 ERA) tossed 4 1/3 shutout innings in relief against UCF in that earlier meeting, when the Knights took a 4-0 lead after four batters in the first inning. The Gamecocks managed just one run on an RBI fielder’s choice by Alaynie Page, the All-SEC first-team junior outfielder who has a .446 average, a school-record 15 homers, and 45 RBIs.

Page is convinced the Gamecocks can handle the test of a difficult regional after winning five of their eight SEC series, including the last four.

The SEC placed a nation-best 11 teams in the NCAA tournament.

“The SEC does the job of preparing us for the postseason with all the tough teams,” All-SEC first-team junior outfielder Alaynie Page said. “That’s the beauty of postseason, too, because it’s a new season and everybody gets to start over at 0-0. This is the fun part, no finals, no school, just play ball.”

Smith said her team, which has set a school record with 60 home runs, improved as the season progressed because more players than Page and Blue began to step up. This was the first season every player on the team was recruited by Smith, who’s in her fifth season. After inheriting a program that had fallen on tough times in 2010, she has taken the Gamecocks to three consecutive NCAA tournaments.

“We have gotten better every year,” she said. “This year specifically is our best year on paper right now, and it’s been our toughest schedule. I made a conscious effort to schedule tougher in non-conference, and I think it’s paid off.”

Senior outfielder Kristen Struett, who’s hitting .303 with three home runs and 25 RBIs, has watched the program’s steady climb.

’It means a great deal to me to help grow this program with (Smith), along with the other seniors. It’s awesome to see the NCAA tournament is now a standard for this program,” Struett said. “This team has the confidence, the momentum and the mindset this year. We’re ready to do some damage.”

Smith is confident her players are no longer happy just to make it to regional play. They’re hoping to take care of some business they couldn’t finish the last two seasons.

“It’s been our goal all season long to go further in postseason,” Smith said. “Our intention is to go win this regional and get to a Super (Regional). I do think the ‘wow’ factor is over, and we’re ready to win.”

NCAA SOFTBALL REGIONAL

WHO: FSU (45-12), UCF (48-7), USC (37-20), Dartmouth (25-16)

WHERE: Tallahassee, Fla.

WHEN: Friday's games: UCF vs. USC, 10 a.m., FSU vs. Dartmouth, 12:30 p.m.

ONLINE: ESPN3.com or the WatchESPN app

WHAT: Double-elimination format with winner facing the Tennessee regional winner in a Super Regional

RPI RANKINGS: No. 7 FSU, No. 15 UCF, No. 30 USC, No. 95 Dartmouth

FAST FACT: USC is making its 18th NCAA tournament appearance, going 32-31 in school history with three trips to the Women's College World Series.

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