South Carolina is playing some of its best softball at the right time. The Gamecocks (37-20) made history as the first double digit seed to reach the SEC Tournament Championship game last week thanks to great pitching and clutch hitting which saw them pull out three straight one-run wins, including two in extra innings.
“As a coach, this is what you want to see,” said head coach Beverly Smith. “I was really proud of our team and how we showed up at the SEC Tournament. We beat some really good teams there. I think that’s a coach’s greatest dream: best ball, right time of year.”
Now that they’re in the postseason for the first time since 2019, they’re not just happy to be there.
“It means everything to be back in the postseason,” said fifth-year senior first baseman Jordan Fabian, who, along with fifth-year senior outfielder Haley Simpson and fifth-year senior pitcher Rachel Vaughan, is one of the few that was on the roster the last time South Carolina made the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks played in Tallahassee that year as well. “This is what we’ve been striving for all year. We fell short the last couple of years, so this is a big deal for us. What we did in Arkansas (at the SEC Tournament) gave us a lot of confidence, but at the same time, that’s all stuff we knew that we could do. It’s shocking a lot of the country, but it’s not shocking us. It’s good momentum heading into this next week.”
“It means a lot,” said senior pitcher Donnie Gobourne, who earned All-SEC honors this season and is playing in her first NCAA Tournament after transferring from Florida Atlantic. “I’m just glad I could be here and help the team make history. Our mentality is that we have a predator mindset. Everyone knows that we deserve to be here. We’re playing for each of us. I can’t wait to see how far we can go.”
The Gamecocks made the NCAA Tournament seven straight years under Smith before the streak was snapped in 2020 when the season was cut short due to the COVID pandemic. After coming up short of the postseason in each of the last two years, South Carolina was back to its winning form in 2023. With 11 wins over nationally ranked teams from the SEC, the Gamecocks feel they are well-prepared for any team they may face in the postseason.
“Playing in the SEC is the best preparation you can get. You’ll face a pitcher of the year or player of the year across the dugout in every game. There’s nothing that better prepares you than playing the best.”
“It helps us immensely,” Fabian said. “We know going into the postseason that we’re prepared, and that we’ve seen the best of the best. We know what we can do.”
“We have a lot of confidence,” said junior outfielder/utility Aniyah Black, who played in the NCAA Tournament previously for the University of Georgia before transferring to South Carolina this year. “Coach Bev always says that playing in the SEC is the best preparation you can get. You’ll face a pitcher of the year or player of the year across the dugout in every game. There’s nothing that better prepares you than playing the best. We’ve shown that we are capable and that we can win. We’ve built that belief in ourselves.”
The Gamecocks have several other players with postseason experience after transferring from other schools, including Black, junior catcher Jen Cummings (Washington), and sophomore shorstop Brooke Blankenship (Florida State). For those that have been there before, they’ll do their best to keep the younger players from getting too excited so they can settle down and do the same things that got them to this point.
“It’s a privilege to be in the postseason and it’s special because this team hasn’t been there in a couple of years,” Black said. “You just have to continue to do the little things and stick to who we are.”
“You want to just keep everyone in the moment,” Fabian said. “That’s what we talked about last week when we were in Arkansas for the SEC Tournament. We just want to keep that same mentality that we’ve had all year. The key is just to stick to our game plan and our identity as a program. Just being back in the NCAA Tournament is something I’m looking forward to. It’s what we’ve played for all year. It’s fun, and I’m glad that some of the younger girls and the rest of our team get to experience it now.”
“This team committed very early on in the season to doing things a little differently this year,” Smith said. “They committed to the extra work. They committed to the positivity and optimism that’s required in this game. They’ve been gritty all season long.”