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After landing dream job, former USC player has Gamecocks setting softball records

It began with cold-hard facts and ended with heart-warming photos.

When Kaela Jackson interviewed with Beverly Smith in July for the South Carolina hitting coach opening, she presented a portfolio that was layered in variety. If you wanted to know Jackson’s chops — i.e., she was a year removed from leading Michigan State to school records in seven offensive categories — you didn’t have to dig far. Keep flipping and you’ll find Jackson’s hitting and recruiting philosophies. Go a little further and you’ll read about her history with USC. Get to the end and you’ll find that Gamecock love in picture form.

“In the back,” Jackson said with a grin, “I fluffed it up a little bit.”

The shots were of Jackson and Smith. Of Smith’s team and Jackson’s family. Of Jackson and Smith’s staff members.

“We are Carolina,” Jackson told Smith. “We already are Carolina. So you put that together with the experience I’ve gained from Michigan State and this is a match that can really be special.”

Smith didn’t add Jackson to the USC staff last summer simply because Jackson played for Smith from 2011-12, was a graduate manager in 2013-14 and a volunteer assistant in 2015. Jackson was hired as Gamecock hitting coach because the former .212 batter knocked her interview out of the park.

“It’s not just because I love K.J. and she’s one of my players and an alum,” Smith said Monday. “She came in and was unbelievable in the interview process. She left and I thought to myself, ‘I have to hire K.J.’ She was outstanding in the interview.

“And from a coach perspective, mentor perspective, I was so proud of how she presented herself in the interview process.”

The Gamecocks are in the NCAA tournament for a school-record seventh-straight year. Second-seeded USC (36-17) begins play in the Tallahassee (Florida) Regional at noon Friday, against South Florida. Should Carolina push through the weekend and make a repeat Super Regional appearance, there’s a good chance Jackson’s offense played a huge role.

South Carolina in 2019 has already set a school record for home runs (74), it sits No. 1 all-time in on-base percentage (.408) and is seven shy of the RBI record (309).

Jackson’s a good interviewer, but perhaps a better coach.

“I really think her magic is in her relationship with the players,” Smith said. “She really puts in the extra time, gets to know them, spends the time with them on their swing. It’s not just one type of swing. But really she’s about, ‘What can I help you do to get better?’ And I think that’s her magic sauce.”

USC junior utility player Cayla Drotar, who co-leads the Gamecocks with 44 RBIs, got a head-start on bonding with Jackson. As a middle schooler, the Hartsville native Drotar came to USC games and camps, always marveling at Jackson for her leadership.

“She was always talking and always motivating her teammates,” Drotar said. “I thought that was really cool to watch because growing up, you want to be that teammate to everybody. Just seeing that, I grasped it and took it back with me to my travel team and my high school team.”

Jackson officially joined Drotar’s college team on July 25, 2018. Drotar’s excitement then has hardly worn off 10 months later. The Gamecocks lived by the motto “OBP is life” under former hitting coach Matt Lisle, an analytics-focused instructor who’s now in the Chicago White Sox organization.

The Jackson-driven message is “Power of One.”

“It’s an offense that can be there and have each other’s backs,” Drotar said, “and not try to be the big flashy, sexy numbers person. Those are the teams that get it done. And for us, we’ve really bought into that. “

“Some games haven’t gone the way we’ve wanted or whatever, but I can truly say that we buy into each other for ‘Power of One.’ And I think we do our best when we get in the box to try to move our sister over or lay down a bunt or get a gapper or whatever it is to help our team win.

“And I think that that’s helped a lot because previous years you try to have like one person do that. But this year it’s every single person. And for me, I love being on a team like that. Because it’s for each other. And I think Coach Jackson’s really brought that in and set a tone for it. And we’ve really bought into it. And I think we’re doing awesome with it.”

Nearly one season down in what she calls her dream job, Jackson remains grateful for the opportunity.

“Once you graduate, you’re still family,” Jackson said. “This program and this culture is what’s so great. And that’s why the athletes thrive here as people and as players. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

NCAA Tournament Tallahassee Regional schedule

South Carolina (36-17) vs. South Florida (40-17), noon Friday (SEC Network)

Florida State (51-8) vs. Bethune-Cookman (26-29), 2:30 p.m. Friday, ESPNU

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Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
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