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Gamecocks' 3 softball starters a pivotal part of 2018, NCAA success

Down to last out, USC softball fights back to win regional

South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith describes the emotion of winning the NCAA tournament's Columbia Regional.
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South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith describes the emotion of winning the NCAA tournament's Columbia Regional.

South Carolina’s softball team is headed to Tempe, Ariz., for an NCAA Super Regional, and that means the Gamecocks can expect a healthy dose of Arizona State ace Giselle Juarez.

Juarez is 25-4 on the season with a 0.88 ERA and 289 strikeouts versus 36 walks. Ninth-seeded South Carolina (49-15) will face the eighth-seeded Sun Devils (46-11) beginning Friday in a three-game series, with the winner advancing to the Women’s College World Series.

Against Juarez, the Gamecocks will match what has become a three-pronged rotation of Cayla Drotar, Kelsey Oh and Dixie Raley. All three pitchers were integral in South Carolina’s dramatic survival in the Columbia Regional this weekend.

Oh, a freshman from New Jersey, pitched seven one-hit innings and struck out a career-high 13 in a 3-0 win against UNC-Greensboro on Friday night. All three pitchers worked Saturday as the Gamecocks went 1-1, with Raley pitching a scoreless seventh in the final game of the day and thus earning herself the start in Sunday’s first elimination game. In that game, the junior transfer from Georgia Southern pitched a complete-game shutout to improve to 14-4.

“I think Dixie Raley really set the tone (Sunday),” South Carolina coach Bev Smith said. “She was a fresh arm. They had not seen her and she was fresh and she was outstanding. We got the win, and it really gave us the momentum going into game 2.”

“I don’t think I did too bad,” Raley said. “To be here in this moment with this team, you couldn’t write a better story right now. The emotions I feel have made everything worth it.”

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South Carolina starting pitcher Cayla Drotar celebrates after the final out against Liberty during the regional round of the NCAA tournament at Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina advances to the Super Regionals after defeating Liberty twice on Sunday. Sean Rayford Special to The State

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South Carolina's Kelsey Oh pitches Saturday in the NCAA tournament at Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field. 5/19/18 Dwayne McLemore The State

After that game, Smith went back to Drotar, a sophomore from Hartsville who has been the team’s most frequent starter this season but struggled Saturday. Drotar (21-6) responded with a complete-game shutout of her own in the regional’s decisive game.

“We made some adjustments for KK, and I just thought she was a good matchup for (Liberty),” Smith said. “I thought we needed the changeup. I knew yesterday we didn’t play defense like we normally do, and KK’s job is get ground balls and let us play defense. Today you saw Gamecock softball defense. That’s what we’ve done all season.”

Smith wasn’t thinking about her pitching plans following Sunday night’s victory. Soon enough, though, she’ll have to determine how to deploy her three options against Juarez and Arizona State.

“I have not done any forward thinking looking at possible opponents,” Smith said. “We will continue what we have done all season and stay game to game, but our players will know what we are playing for and that the best part of the season is in front of us.”

South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith describes the impact of a tough regional on the Gamecocks as the team moves ahead in the NCAA tournament.

How to watch

NCAA Softball Super Regionals

South Carolina (49-15) at Arizona State (46-11)

11 pm Friday (ESPNU)

9 pm Saturday (ESPN2)

9 pm Sunday (ESPNU) if necessary

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