By Josh Hyber | Photo by Allen Sharpe
It’s almost as if the NCAA wants to rename South Carolina the University of South Carolina at Tallahassee. That’s how often Gamecock softball has taken residence in Florida’s capital to play an NCAA Tournament regional there.
South Carolina played in the Tallahassee Regional three straight years from 2014-2016. Twice (2014, 2016) the Gamecocks were grouped with Florida State and South Florida.
That will once again be the case this season.
South Carolina (36-17, 9-14) will play South Florida (40-17) on Friday at noon (SEC Network) in the team’s first game of the double-elimination regional, it was announced Sunday during a selection show on ESPN2.
“We are eating at our favorite two restaurants in Tallahassee, those are set,” South Carolina head coach Beverly Smith joked on Monday. “The hotels are assigned by the NCAA, and we have tried some different hotels.”
One thing the Gamecocks hope does change is the result; the Gamecocks did not advance out of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 regionals.
“We’re ready to redeem ourselves,” said left fielder Kennedy Clark, one of two Gamecocks still on the roster from the 2016 squad.
WATCH: Smith, players preview NCAAs
“I think this will be the best team that we take into Tallahassee and the most competitive,” Smith said.
The Garnet and Black beat South Florida 8-1 on March 1 and hold a four-game winning streak over the Bulls that dates back to the 2016 regional.
Also in the regional — which Smith called a “great draw” — are host Florida State (51-8), the defending national champions and No. 4 overall seed in the tournament, and Bethune-Cookman (26-29).
The Seminoles feature seven players with 30 or more RBIs and six players with 10 or more home runs.
“The kids are very aware that they’re the defending national champions,” Smith said. “They do a great job recruiting and always have a stacked lineup. They’ve got an excellent pitching staff. ... But we understand that’s the type of team you’ve got to beat if you’re going to advance. [But] I think our schedule has prepared us for a team like Florida State.”
Smith commended the fans at FSU’s JoAnne Graf Field, saying they arrive early and yell at visting teams from the time they pull into the parking lot until the time the game ends.
“Our kids joke all the time, ‘We’ll just pretend like they’re cheering for us,’” Smith said.
South Carolina, after having lost five of its last six games and bowing out in its first SEC Tournament game, is motivated. Smith said practices have been spirited.
“What’s important is what’s in front of us,” senior pitcher Dixie Raley said.
“We’re more prepared to play in the postseason to play our best ball,” Clark said. “Because we haven’t yet.
“… We know that we can beat anybody. … We know we can do it, since we’ve done it in the past.”
South Carolina has fared well against some of its better competition this season. The Gamecocks won a game at then No. 8 and eventual No. 10 overall seed LSU and took two of three from then No. 4 Alabama.
“Any time you play a season in the SEC you’re definitely ready for anything that can happen in the postseason,” Raley said. “We’re playing the best every weekend.”
“We’ve got six SEC teams that are hosting this weekend,” Smith noted. “We’ve played and beat top teams in the country. I feel like our team is ready. And I say this all the time, ‘Play the game. The game doesn’t know who’s supposed to win.’”
Added the coach moments later, “While we’re not hosting this year, I’m still so proud of this team and this season. I don’t want people to miss what this team has accomplished, because we’ve really had an outstanding season.
“We’re just going to have to take our game on the road right now.
“… It’s that time of year. We’ve got to bring our best game or we’ll be going home.”
FULL REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Game 1: South Carolina vs. USF (Friday at noon on SEC Network)
Game 2: Bethune-Cookman vs. Florida State (Friday at 2:30 p.m. on ESPNU)
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner (Saturday at noon)
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser (Saturday at 2:30 p.m.)
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner (Saturday at 5 p.m.)
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner (Sunday at Noon)
Game 7: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (If necessary, 2:30 p.m. Sunday)