By Collyn Taylor
The South Carolina softball team is tired of traveling to Tallahassee, Florida.
The Gamecocks have made the postseason four-straight seasons, and three of those years they were shipped down Interstate 95 to play in a four-team regional hosted by Florida State. Both years, they didn’t make it out of the regional.
“People have asked me if I’ve bought any property there yet,” head coach Beverly Smith said, laughing. “But we scheduled Florida State here on our bye weekend, so they have to come here for a change.”
The Gamecocks are trying to avoid hitting the road for regionals, trying to stay home for the first round of the NCAA Tournament and host three other teams with the winner of the regional advancing to the Super Regional round.
Smith, who’s coaching her seventh season in Columbia, has never hosted a regional in four postseason appearances. She hopes that changes this year.
“The way that I’ve put our schedule together, that’s my intention,” she said. “If we have the kind of season I think we can, I think I’ve put us in a position where we could potentially host. That’s certainly our goal to have the postseason here in front of the Gamecock fans and at our home field.”
The Gamecocks haven’t advanced to the Super Regionals since 2007, the same year they last held a regional at home.
“Hosting regionals would be a huge advantage for us,” senior pitcher Nickie Blue said. “Home-field advantage is something you can’t deny, so being able to host a regional and the first round of the NCAA Tournament would be a huge boost for our team.”
The regionals for NCAA softball start May 19.
And through the first 16 games of the season, the Gamecocks are putting themselves in a good position to be one of the 16 teams playing at home during the opening weekend of the tournament.
They are 14-2 and are ranked No. 32 in the USA Today poll and No. 33 by ESPN.com. They’ve also won 14 of their first 16 for back-to-back seasons.
“This is definitely the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “We keep moving up on the chart, but it’s the way they put in the work and the culture they’ve created here. I think a lot of those things have led to our success on the field.”
It’s a far cry from the program Smith inherited when she took over and went 26-30 in her first season. She has increased her win total every year at South Carolina except for last season, when she won 38 games, the same amount she did in 2015.
The steady rise has been in part because of Blue and senior infielder Kaylea Snaer, who both arrived in the same year with the mindset of changing the mentality of the program.
Blue led the SEC in saves her freshman year and leads the team this year with seven wins. She also has a team-best 1.28 ERA. Snaer has started all 16 games this season, and she’s second among starters with a .533 slugging percentage.
“They’ve really shouldered a lot of the load through their career; that’s why we recruited them to be there,” Smith said. “They were both recruited under the pretense of changing the program.”
The Gamecocks travel to California this weekend for the Judi Garman Classic and will play Northwestern, Indiana, No. 20 Arizona State, No. 7 UCLA and Long Beach State.
Six players on the team will return home to California, which delights the coach. Blue, a Colorado-native, will get to spend time with her family, who is driving from the Denver area.
“It’ll be nice to literally see them (her teammates) in (Fullerton) and how comfortable they are,” Blue said. “The thing I think I’ll like the most is seeing them relax at their home and then turning on their competitiveness to win the games we do have.”
They’ll return from the trip west and delve straight into conference play, traveling to Tennessee the following weekend. They will have to battle Florida and Alabama, two softball powerhouses that have won national titles in the past five years.
Smith said her team has a good mentality heading into a tough conference slate, especially against those two teams, and knows her team is talented enough to compete against the Gators and Tide and could play well enough to host a regional.
“Every single year that I’ve been here I felt like we could compete with those teams, but I think this year we truly believe it,” Blue said. “I think it’s in our mentality that we are in the SEC, you know?”