By Brandon Alter | Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina softball’s 2018 season felt like it had the makings of something special through its first month and a half. At 25-4, the Gamecocks weren’t just winning, they were finding ways to win in different ways.
But the team was also untested against SEC heavyweights, and a weekend series against No. 2 Tennessee, a team it was 3-14 against since 2011, loomed.
The weekend at Beckham Field — a South Carolina sweep of the Volunteers — became the turning point, a launch pad, for the team’s run to the NCAA Tournament Super Regional round.
This coming weekend — with the No. 17 Gamecocks (26-10, 3-8 SEC) welcoming No. 4 Alabama (37-2, 7-2 SEC) for a three-game set — has the potential to be just as pivotal. The Gamecocks will host the Crimson Tide on Friday and Saturday (ESPN) at 6 p.m. before a 1 p.m. Sunday matinee.
“I don’t know if it’s season defining. It’s three games and we have a lot of games left, but I think it’s an opportunity to test ourselves against the best in the country,” Gamecock head coach Beverly Smith said. “When you go up against a top-10 opponent, it certainly allows you to see how you match up against the top in the country.”
In her eight-plus seasons at the helm, Smith has yet to win a series against Alabama and has a 2-16 record. The Gamecocks took the middle game of a series in both 2016 and 2017.
Smith said those wins took complete team performances.
“During those games, we jumped on them. We just kept attacking [at] the plate,” said Gamecock senior Kennedy Clark, the only player on the current roster on both of those teams. “Defense was on. Pitching was on. Just got to be on your ‘A’ game to beat teams like this.”
Last season, the Gamecocks played the underdog role against the Volunteers, something it will do once again this coming weekend.
Smith, however, didn’t want to compare the two seasons.
“This team is finding its own identity. We have improved with every SEC series. We’re growing and now hopefully some of our lessons from the first half from SEC [play] show up in the second half,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of room to still accomplish what we want to do this season. … And we’ve got to do it starting with Alabama this weekend.”
The task won’t be easy against SEC-leading Alabama. The Crimson Tide have similar statistics to LSU, a team the Gamecocks took one of three against on the road this past weekend.
“I don’t think their hitters are any different than what we have faced,” Gamecock pitcher Dixie Raley said. “We just came off a tough team in LSU. I think, for the most part, we figured out to handle them well, so I’m not worried about it.”
Added Smith, “You can’t live in cautious-land. Our pitchers have to be attacking. I think we have to limit free bases. I think it’s a nice matchup after facing LSU’s offense. LSU is similar to Alabama in the sense they are deep one through nine. They offer some power with some speed. There’s no room to be careful with hitters. You have to attack and limit free passes.”
Alabama also features a dominant pitching rotation that has a collective ERA one run lower than the Gamecock staff’s.
“We’re just doing us. Like any other series, we’re just going to have a plan and attack their pitching like we would any other team. We’re not making it bigger than it is,” said Jana Johns, who leads the Gamecocks in slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
“I think [for] all the games in the SEC, you got to be playing your best game to win,” Smith said. “… I think the consistent message is that the margin of victory is so small. Everybody has talent. There’s a lot of part in the league and it’s about who plays best on gameday. “
For the Gamecocks to take the series, players know what they have to do.
“[We] just [have] take every opportunity we get. You don’t get too many in the SEC. Jump on those errors they make and just come through in situational hitting,” Clark said. “Have the mindset that just because we’re the underdog, it doesn’t mean we can’t beat them.”