South Carolina’s softball season reached an end in the Sonoran desert Saturday, but in some ways it also felt like a beginning.
Arizona State scored four runs to break a tie in the fifth inning to beat the Gamecocks 5-2 and sweep the NCAA Super Regional, a result that could only momentarily take away from one the best seasons in school history and a future that seems to hold more.
“It certainly didn’t turn out like we wanted to, but I’m so proud of this team and everything they accomplished this season,” coach Beverly Smith said.
“This season for us was really led by (the senior class) all season long. They set the foundation. The difference in this season was a shift in the culture and the way we competed.”
South Carolina set a school record with 65 homers and had the best team ERA in a decade led by a trio of starters with double-digit victories. They entered the Super Regional with the best fielding percentage in school history and a program-best 31 double plays.
The Gamecocks (49-17) won three elimination games to win the Columbia Regional last week but could not get one here in the attempt to reach the Women's College World Series for the first time since 1997.
“I think we have a lot to look forward to,” Smith said.
“I think we’ve laid the foundation and the expectation that we want to be a national seed. We want to host (an NCAA regional). I think the underclassmen have the desire now, we want to be a top eight seed and host ‘supers’ as well. It’s certainly our goal to be in Oklahoma City every year, and we’ll keep striving for that.”
Third baseman Jana Johns singled, doubled and scored twice and Mackenzie Boesel had two hits for the Gamecocks, who tied the game at 1 in the fourth inning when Johns beat out a chopper in front of the plate, took third when the catcher threw the ball past first, and scored on Alyssa Kumiyama’s infield single.
Arizona State countered with five straight hits, the first a bad-hop single, off 21-game winner Cayla Drotar, for a 5-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning.
Johns and Tiara Duffy doubled to make it 5-2 in the sixth inning, and Drotar and Kennedy Clark were hit by pitches to bring the tying run to the plate in the seventh. Johns lined out to center to end the game.
The Gamecocks also lost 5-2 Friday, marking only the second time all season that the Gamecocks gave up as many as five runs in consecutive games.
SEC teams Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Arkansas also were eliminated Saturday in Super Regionals.
The USC senior class finished with 159 victories and participated in four straight NCAA regionals after finishing third in the SEC despite preseason predictions that cast them much lower.
“This team didn’t care what other people thought, what other teams thought or where we were voted,” said Jordyn Augustus, one of six seniors. “We decided how good we were going to be at the beginning of the year, and we just stuck to it.”
Six starters return for 2019, including pitchers Drotar (21-7), Dixie Raley (14-5) and Kelsey Oh (14-4) on a staff that entered the Super Regional round with a 2.02 ERA.
Johns is a freshman and Nos. 1 2-3 hitters Kenzi Maguire, Boesel and Drotar are sophomores. Kennedy Clark, who hit the school-record 65th homer Friday, is a junior.
“Our underclassmen are very talented, and they are going to continue to have great success for us,” Smith said.
On the 49-win 2018, “I think it was the mentality our players came to the field with every day,” Smith continued. “They decided to have a belief and a trust in each other that we had everything in the dugout that we needed to be successful.”