Josh Kendall

As NCAAs arrive, Bev Smith is up for any challenge, including facing Ray Tanner

Beverly Smith is trying to complicate Dawn Staley’s schedule for May, which is weird considering they have become such close friends.

South Carolina’s eighth-year softball coach and 10th-year women’s basketball coach are Columbia neighbors and were taking one of their regular strolls Tuesday morning when the subject of the calendar was broached.

“Dawn was asking about the rain and trying to figure out all the game times,” Smith said. “She’s very invested. She wanted to hear about the (potential) Super Regional. She’s really trying to figure out how to fit softball into her schedule right now. It is awesome to have her be such a big fan and supporter of our program.”

Smith’s team has made a lot of people adjust their spring schedules.

After a 45-14 regular season (15-9 SEC) and runner-up finish in the SEC tournament, the No. 12 Gamecocks are hosting an NCAA regional for the first time since 2002. The action begins Friday when Hofstra takes on Liberty at 5 p.m., and then South Carolina faces UNC Greensboro at 7:30. The winner of the weekend will advance to a Super Regional, a three-game series with a spot in the College World Series on the line.

“I would really like to see us play this out and get to Super Regionals, and you get to that point, you’re in a three-game series. I like our chances anytime we get to see somebody more than once,” Smith said. “I already think the season has been successful, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this postseason takes us.”

Batter up

Staley was one of the first Columbia personalities to take the Bev Smith Challenge. That’s Smith’s standing offer to pitch to anyone who will step into the batter’s box. If Smith, a former North Carolina pitcher, strikes out the volunteer, she’s owed a cup of coffee.

“Here’s the problem with Dawn,” Smith begins. “Dawn did not hit very well, but she wasn’t coming out of the box until she hit it. I think I finally said, ‘I’m tired, get out.’ She wasn’t leaving. Her competitive nature was not going to let her leave without a hit, so I think I started trying to hit her bat. I was like ‘Oh Lord, we could be here all night.’ ”

Staley, an all-city softball player in high school in Philadelphia, acknowledged her struggles against her friend.

"I could not hit her until she pitched her arm tired," Staley said.

Staley won't be in Beckham Field to see the Gamecocks play this weekend because of a previous out-of-town commitment, but she's hoping for rainouts so she can be there for Monday games, just like she was in Columbia, Mo., to see this year’s SEC tournament, just like she was there before South Carolina was seeing much success or even playing in five-year-old Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field.

“She was here at the very beginning,” Smith said. “I remember Dawn when we were at the old stadium because fans could be on the field level. We had a bottom of the seventh win against, I don’t remember the team, but I remember Dawn Staley coming through the line. She ran out on the field and was running through the line. This was before I even knew her that well, and I thought, ‘Gosh, she’s crazy.’ ”

Beverly Smith and South Carolina hosted the SEC tournament in 2014 at Beckham Field. The State file photo

It’s not just middle-aged women’s basketball coaches who can’t catch up to Smith’s pitches. Her own players learn the lesson early on.

“I let them know early about my ability to strike them out,” she chuckled. “I like it when they pass the stories along, and they get bigger and more exciting as they go along. They stretch out over the years.”

Smith has been fanning overconfident adversaries since her playing days at UNC, when she challenged Tar Heels baseball players for spending money.

“The baseball guys, their egos,” she said. “I was always up for it if they wanted to give me $5 or something like that. Really it was about the ability to tell everybody I struck them out, that was good.”

So far at South Carolina, former Gamecocks baseball player Robert Beary is about the only person who can claim a victory against Smith.

“I got him to swing and miss a couple times, but he hit a ball into the light pole,” Smith said. “He crushed a ball. Robert Beary won that challenge.”

Smith also credits her team’s communications director, Patrick Osborne, with a good showing.

The rest of the takers have left in defeat. The obvious matchup — Smith versus her boss and former South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner — has yet to materialize, but Smith is game.

“That is a great idea,” she said. “I see him talking his way out of that somehow. He will probably say something like he was a defensive specialist or something. I don’t know what he’ll come up with.”

If Tanner does end up owing Smith a Starbucks drink, maybe he can join her on her daily coffee run. There are some folks in a regular morning meeting there who would like to have a word, it seems.

“I might have a Starbucks problem,” Smith said. “It’s on my route to work. I swing my Starbucks every day, say hello to the fellas that sit outside. I have my Starbucks friends. It is such an eclectic group of people, it’s really neat. I always walk up and say, ‘What are we talking about today?’ They were heavy in hiring the new baseball coach and football coach. Politics was big for a bit. I swing by every morning and get a cup of coffee.”

All in the family

Smith’s coffee clutch is just another indication that the Texas native-turned-Tar Heel has found a new home in Columbia.

Her parents moved here from Houston five years ago to be near their daughter and have adopted an entire program. Her dad, Ed, is the facility handyman, hanging this and that in the batting cage, and her mom, Dixie, volunteered to serve as the host in the media room for this weekend’s tournament.

“My mom feels like she’s the ambassador at the stadium. She welcomes everyone in,” Smith said. “They were talking about making this a nice tournament and what they were going to do for media, so I said, ‘You know what, let my mom monitor that room.’ Probably you’ll have some banana bread in there. There will be some touches of Dixie in there.”

By that time, Smith’s focus won’t be on Staley’s schedule or striking out Ray Tanner but on the next step in her program’s development. The Gamecocks are 274-193 in Smith’s eight seasons and have improved their final RPI ranking in each of the past five seasons, finishing at No. 22 last year.

“It’s so rewarding for me that these players have worked hard and we have the opportunity to host here. I think being a top 16 seed is such a big deal,” Smith said. “I really credit our players, because from Day 1 they have put in the work, they’ve bought in and they’ve continued to believe this entire season. They just keep looking on to the next challenge.”

NCAA Regional:

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; games Saturday and Sunday

Who: USC vs. UNCG

Where: Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field

Other opening round game: Liberty-Hofstra at 5 p.m.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC