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2017 Gamecock softball preview: Can South Carolina bring the tournament back to Columbia?

The program has come a long way since Bev Smith took over in 2011, but can she finally get over the SEC hump?

The teams during the national anthem vs. No. 7/7 Florida State in the 2016 Tallahassee Regional
Photo by Larry Novey

No ones first head coaching job is easy.

Just ask Beverly Smith.

Prior to taking over the South Carolina job in 2011, the highest level she’d ever been a head coach was at Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Tex. While she did well enough lead the Knight’s to three state titles, it’s a far cry from running a D-1 college program.

After spending over a decade as an assistant coach at North Carolina, Smith was hired to take over a program that was 11-40 the year prior — and Smith had no idea what to expect.

“Cutting your teeth in the SEC wasn’t exactly the easiest route to follow,” Smith said. “But I knew the steps we had to take to get things back on the right track.”

It took her just two years to right the ship back to smooth waters. For the first time in five seasons South Carolina was back in the NCAA tournament and went as far as the regional final against then No. 6 Texas. Even Smith admitted she was surprised at how quickly things turned around.

“I’d be lying to you if I thought we were going to be in the 2013 tournament,” Smith said. “We pulled off some pretty significant wins that season, and it was a testament to the kind of players we had that year”

Now in her seventh season, Smith is 195 wins in — the second winningest coach in program history — and has taken the Gamecocks to four consecutive NCAA tournaments and two regional finals. However there’s still a lot left to accomplish for Smith’s era of Gamecock softball, especially in conference play.

If there’s one valid criticism of Smith’s South Carolina tenure, it’s she never finished above .500 in SEC play.

Not once.

Their best finish was 11-13 back in 2014, and as a matter of fact the last time the program finished above .500 in SEC play was 2003. So while it’s not just a Smith-specific problem, the desire to legitimately compete within best softball conference in the country still stands as a looming hole over the program.

“I think it’s a fair point to make that we still haven’t cemented ourselves as contenders in the SEC,” Smith said. “We haven’t had the pitching depth to compete with the Florida’s, Alabama’s or LSU’s in the past.”

Can this be the year South Carolina breaks through and puts themselves in the top-half of the SEC? We’ll break it all down in the 2017’s preview.

Jessica Elliott (10) vs. USF in the Tallahassee Regional
Photo by Larry Novey

Pitching is the Key

As mentioned earlier, Smith believes the main problem in South Carolina’s lack of SEC success was in pitching. Not that South Carolina hasn’t had great pitchers in the past, but it’s been since 2007 when the Gamecocks had Kate Pouliot and Melissa Hendon on the mound could they make the claim of having a truly deep pitching staff.

But for the first time in Smith’s career, she can claim to have SEC caliber depth on her pitching staff. Nickie Blue and Jessica Elliot combined for 390 and a third innings to notch a combined ERA of 2.60 a year ago. They accounted for 98 percent of the Gamecocks total innings in 2016 and will be expected to do the same this year.

“Both Nickie and Jessica have tremendous experience,” Smith said. “Now add in Cayla Drotar and Haley Copeland, and I think it’s key and in a three game series to have that depth.”

Cayla Drotar could be the wild card in the pitching equation for South Carolina. Drotar has been committed to South Carolina since she was in eighth grade and might be the highest-rated prep player South Carolina’s reeled in during Smith’s tenure.

The three-time Gatorade POY in South Carolina could be the key third starter for the Gamecocks to go along with Blue and Elliot in the weekend rotation. Haley Copeland’s a junior who pitched only five innings last year but will need to come in as a key reliever or fill in as that third starter.

This position group will make-or-break South Carolina’s season, seeing as the SEC is known for its outstanding pitching staffs. If Blue and Elliot can improve off their junior years and Drotar cashes in on her potential — this unit can help South Carolina potentially host a regional.

Kaylea Snaer (12) vs. USF in the Tallahassee Regional
Photo by Larry Novey

Snaer leads the offense

When it comes to South Carolina’s run production, it all starts and stops with one name: Kaylea Snaer. She led the NCAA in doubles last year and returns as South Carolina’s leader in hits, RBI, homers, OPS and pretty much everything else. The senior first baseman will bat at the heart of the order and will be the undisputed leader on offense.

“She (Snaer) has looked great in preseason and has been an every day player since her freshman year,” Smith said. “We’ll be looking to her for leadership in our clubhouse this season.”

The next three leading hitters from 2016 — Alexis Mack, Alaynie Page and Ansley Ard — are gone. As to who’ll fill in their place, the Big Ten may provide some help in the form of Penn State transfer Alyssa Vanderveer.

Vanderveer was one of the most feared hitters in the Northeast before making her way South. In just two years she hit the fifth-most home runs in Penn State history and set the single-season record with 50 RBI last season. She’ll be an offensive asset at catcher for South Carolina this season to replace Jordan Bizzell behind the plate.

Kennedy Clark and Mckenzie Mcguire both started as freshman and will look to improve to be even better players in their second years. Kam Watts is projected to bat at the top of the order to provide speed on the basepaths while Victoria Williams, Taylor Williams, Krystan White and Lauren Stewart should round out the nine player order.

Snaer and Vanderveer should be sure-fire studs in the lineup, but it’ll be Clark, Mcguire and Watts’s collective presence that’ll be the key to whether or not South Carolina’s offense will truly be potent enough to handle the kind of pitching they’ll see week-in and week-out in the SEC.

Jessica Elliott (10), Kenzi Maguire (2), Kaylea Snaer (12) vs. USF in the Tallahassee Regional
Photo by Larry Novey

Schedule of significance

Here’s the biggest bugaboo of them all for South Carolina: their schedule. The SEC at one point reigned supreme over the college football universe, however that’s died down over the past year or two. On the other hand the SEC absolutely reigns supreme over the college softball universe. From top to bottom they are the deepest, most talented softball conference in America.

In last season’s tournament the SEC had 11 of their 14 schools represented in a 64 team tournament. Eight of the 16 regional sites were held on SEC fields and four of the eight World Series teams were from the SEC. It’s a pretty overwhelming number considering 290 teams from 32 conferences participate in D-1 softball.

“Florida, Alabama, LSU are all loaded on the mound, and Auburn comes back as the national runner up,” Smith said. “You really don’t ever get a break here in conference play. But that’s why our girls come here, they know their coming here to play the best.”

There’s two sides to this coin for South Carolina. The downside obviously is the Gamecocks essentially play a top-25 team every week when conference play rolls around. If we’re going off preseason rankings right now, South Carolina has eight weekend series — 24 games — against top 25 teams with another scheduled game against No. 8 UCLA on March 5.

That’s 25 of your 56 scheduled games coming against top 25 teams. It’s an insanely difficult schedule, which has contributed to a lack of success in conference play over the course of Smith’s tenure.

However the bright side of this coin is how it affects the Gamecocks RPI come tournament selection time. Last season South Carolina was ranked No. 24 in RPI, which came by benefit of playing such a hard schedule. Of course this put them 10th in the conference in RPI, once again illustrating how hard playing in the SEC is on a weekly basis.

Beverly Smith vs. USF in the Tallahassee Regional
Photo by Larry Novey

Summary: Host or bust

South Carolina has one goal according to Smith this season, and it’s something the program hasn’t done in over ten years.

“We feel like we’re going to be good enough to host a regional,” Smith said. “If everything breaks right on the mound I think we can bring the tournament to our nice, new facilities.”

You’ll have to go back to the early 2000’s the last time South Carolina was hosting regionals. Is it going to be easy for South Carolina to accomplish this? It’s been established that considering the conference the Gamecocks play in: No, it won’t be.

South Carolina would have to go .500 in their series against those top-25 teams like Alabama, LSU, Florida, Auburn, etc. On top of that there can’t be any slip-ups against the non top-25 competition they’ll face in the preseason or in the mid-week games inbetween SEC series.

Whether or not Smith is concerned with her legacy at South Carolina is beside the fact that if she could get the NCAA tournament back to Columbia, she’d be cementing herself as the coach who revived the program to bring it back to the heights Joyce Compton had it humming at some years ago.