Beverly Smith has had an unusual challenge this week in preparing South Carolina for its first NCAA Super Regional series in 11 years: Getting a group of 18- to 22-year-olds to stay up late.
“My group wants to go asleep,” she said with a laugh. “They’re tired.”
The national ninth-seeded Gamecocks (49-15) face No. 8 Arizona State (46-11) at 8 p.m. local time in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday. That’s 11 p.m. back in Columbia.
Games two and three of the series are scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. East Coast time.
USC arrived in Tempe on Tuesday evening.
“Coach has been trying to keep us up a little later to get used to the time zone,” said senior first baseman Krystan White. “(Wednesday night), we had a meeting and we could tell she kept trying to push it and push it to try to get us to stay up later, just to get us used to being up late.”
Count it as just one of the hurdles Carolina must get over as it aims for its first Women's College World Series berth since 1997. You, if you’re not asleep, can catch the action on ESPNU (games one and three) and ESPN2 (game two). Here are some additional things to watch:
South Carolina’s offense vs. Giselle Juarez
The Gamecocks, under the direction of first-year hitting coach Matt Lisle, have an SEC-leading 64 home runs. That’s also a program record.
Such power delivered last weekend in the form of White’s walk-off homer that beat Liberty and allowed South Carolina to avoid elimination at Beckham Field.
Can the pop return against Juarez? The Arizona State ace enters Friday with a 25-4 record, 0.88 ERA and 289 strikeouts to 36 walks. The ERA is second-best in the country. The K-to-BB ratio is good four fourth-best.
“She’s certainly talented,” Smith said, “but we’ve faced great pitchers in the SEC and we also traveled to Oklahoma and faced (USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year finalist) Paige Parker, who’s a dominant left-handed pitcher. So we have had, I would say, someone of similar caliber in Paige Parker from OU.”
The Gamecocks managed two runs on three hits in five innings against Parker on March 10.
South Carolina’s pitchers vs. ASU’s power-heavy lineup
The Sun Devils are a noisy bunch at the plate, too. They rank 13th nationally with 1.11 home runs a game. They’ve mashed 63 homers this season.
USC’s three-person rotation of Cayla Drotar, Kelsey Oh and Dixie Raley enters with a 2.02 ERA, the best by a Carolina staff since 2007.
Drotar, a sophomore with a 21-6 record and .275 batting average at the plate, is expected to start game one.
“We get an extra hitter in the lineup when she’s on the mound,” Smith said. “She just gives us consistent ground balls for the defense.”
The Gamecocks on a new stage
Smith has led the Gamecocks to six straight NCAA tournaments, but this is the first time she has USC in a super regional. Arizona State, four-time national champions, is hosting a super for the ninth time in program history. The Sun Devils are seeking their ninth WCWS appearance.
Experience factor in play?
“There’s definitely a lot of emotions in play – excited, nervous, just living the dream of making it this far,” White said. “But we're just taking it all in and not letting the atmosphere and letting the stage define anything.
“We’re going to take it all in and live each moment for what it is and not make it bigger than what it truly is.”
Before getting off a phone interview with The State Thursday night, Smith wanted to confirm that, yes, Dawn Staley will be in attendance this weekend.
“No Champ, though,” she said, referring to the popular puppy of the USC women’s basketball coach.
Smith is confident garnet and black will be seen among the sea of red and gold in ASU’s 1,535-seat Farrington Stadium.
“I know that we had a ticket allotment of 125,” Smith said, “and we’ve used all of those. We’ll have a good section of fans above our dugout. And I know, certainly if people aren’t here, we got a good following of people looking out for us on TV as well.”
No. 8 South Carolina at No. 9 Arizona State
What: Best-of-three super regional series
When: Game one, 11 p.m. Friday (ESPNU)
Game two, 9 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)
Game three (if necessary), 9 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU)
Stream: WatchESPN app
At stake: Women's College World Series berth