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Super finish! Gamecocks battle back to win regional, advance in NCAAs

South Carolina softball will be making its second ever trip to an NCAA Super Regional after surviving three straight elimination games to win the Columbia Regional.

“These games showed everybody what we’re made of and what this team is capable of,” said junior pitcher Dixie Raley, the winning pitcher in the first of two South Carolina wins over Liberty on Sunday.

Gamecocks sophomore Cayla Drotar hit a two-run home run in a 2-0 win to start the day and was the winning pitcher in Sunday night’s decisive game, a 5-0 victory over the Flames.

“Coming into today, we had one goal and we completed it,” Drotar said. “I just wanted to get on the mound and do what I do, which is live pitch to pitch, and that’s what I did and it was awesome.”

The Gamecocks’ only previous Super Regional appearance came in 2007. South Carolina (49-15), the tournament’s No. 9 seed, will be matched against No. 8 seed Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz., for a three-game series that begins late Friday night. The Sun Devils (46-11) won the Tempe Regional with a 9-0 victory over Ole Miss on Sunday.

The winner of that series will advance to the Women’s College World Series, where South Carolina hasn’t been since 1997.

“I am so proud of this team,” South Carolina head coach Bev Smith said. “They set their sights early this season. They had goals and getting to Super Regionals was one of them. That is attributable to their work ethic and their ability to continue to believe in each other.”

Liberty, the Big South champion, saw its season end at 49-14.

“I want to congratulate South Carolina. They beat us,” Flames head coach Dot Richardson said. “Thirty years of playing the game I haven’t found a way to win if you don’t score.”

The second game got interesting in the bottom of the second when a close play at second base led to Liberty second baseman Amber Bishop disputing the call while holding the ball as South Carolina’s Krystan White streaked home for the first run of the game.

Richardson, the hero of the United States’ 1996 Olympic gold medal winning softball team, came out on the field to argue the call and led to a vocal response from the Gamecocks crowd at Beckham Field. Richardson pointed into the stands and appeared to say something to a USC fan as she exited the field.

Richardson asked the umpiring crew to discuss the original call of safe and also argued that South Carolina’s baserunner interfered with Bishop’s ability to throw home.

“There was a questionable call,” Richardson said. “It would have been a different ball game. I don’t know if the outcome had been different, but it would have been differently payed. I said, ‘Wouldn’t that be interference with someone laying on a player that long?’ They got together and said, ‘No.’ It’s a shame to see that call, but there were four other runs so it ended up not mattering.”

South Carolina’s final four runs came in the bottom of the sixth inning and included a double from White that scored Jana Johns. White, who hit the game-winning, season-saving, two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh in Saturday night’s 5-4 win over Hofstra, was 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored in the final game Sunday, which also happened to be her birthday.

“Whitey stepped up big again today,” Smith said.

The Gamecocks forced the decisive Sunday evening game with a 2-0 victory in the Sunday afternoon game. Raley went the distance to get the win and improve to 14-4 on the season, and Drotar provided the offense with a two-run home run over the left field wall in the third inning.

“We had a lot of tough plays, and we had to really grind it out and I think that’s what postseason is about,” Smith said. “The fact we had to work hard to get through this regional will build us to go into Supers. It’s just another feather we can put in our cap.”

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