It’s been a long season for the South Carolina softball team, with some disappointing losses and a last-place finish in the SEC standings. But along the way, coach Beverly Smith has loved her team’s resilience in the face of challenges.
Senior Cayla Drotar offered up a strong reminder of that Wednesday afternoon at the SEC tournament.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Drotar had been involved in a scary collision during USC’s play-in game win over Auburn. Diving back for first base, her legs twisted over her head and she stayed down while trainers rushed to her. Eventually, she was placed on a stretcher and left the stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in an ambulance.
A team spokesman announced late Tuesday night that Drotar had been taken to the hospital out of an abundance of caution and was OK. Sure enough, by Wednesday she was back in uniform and watching from the bench as the Gamecocks played LSU in the first round. And when USC was down 5-3 late in the contest, it was Drotar who stepped in as a pinch hitter and delivered a stinging line drive to center field.
The ball was caught by Tigers center fielder Aliyah Andrews for a highlight reel play, and the Gamecocks would go on to fall, 7-3. But Drotar’s return to the same diamond where an ambulance had been brought on the field to carry her off a day earlier made it clear — the Gamecocks are digging deep.
“She had a great at-bat, and I’m glad to know that she’s safe and feels good,” Smith said. “We’ll be ready to take on postseason, but this team’s been resilient all year long. I think they’ve bounced back and continued to fight all season.”
They’ve had to in a year where the SEC has been its typically brutal self — the Gamecocks head into Sunday’s NCAA selection show at 26-26 but 4-20 in conference play.
In some sports and conferences, such a record would typically mean no chance at the national tournament. But SEC softball is unique. In the last three NCAA tournaments, all 13 team from the conference have earned bids. Projections for this year’s field include South Carolina, albeit on the bubble.
And Smith sounded confident Wednesday after South Carolina’s SEC tourney exit that the Gamecocks will reach the NCAA tournament for an eighth consecutive season, discounting 2020’s abbreviated campaign ended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel really great about (our resume). It’s amazing to see how many, even outside of SEC teams, how many top-50 RPI wins that we have this year,” Smith said. “I think we’ve got an excellent strength of schedule. So I think our resume speaks for itself. It was a grind during the SEC season, but I think we did the work in our nonconference season to earn a spot in the tournament.”
According to D1Softball.com, South Carolina currently sits at No. 47 in the RPI and No. 19 in strength of schedule. Against top-50 teams in the RPI, the Gamecocks sit at 8-25. For comparison, fellow bubble teams Delaware, Troy and Villanova have no more than five such victories.
Next for South Carolina softball
What: NCAA 2021 softball tournament selection show
When: 9 p.m. Sunday, May 16