The following article first appeared on d1softball.com. For more like it, you can use coupon code NCAA2021 to get a 20% discount for an annual subscription to d1baseball.com or d1softball.com.
Before South Carolina could start building its chemistry on the field, head coach Beverly Smith had to tackle a construction project in the locker room.
Because of the extra year of eligibility granted from the coronavirus pandemic, the Gamecocks have 27 players on the roster this season.
It’s by far the largest of Smith’s career, and she didn’t have enough lockers for every player.
Smith devised a plan to remove two lockers from the coaches’ locker room to give to the players while reconfiguring a locker already in place.
EXTRA INNINGS: The longest games in WCWS college softball history
Although the Gamecocks had to sacrifice a TV to make space for now, every player has an identical spot to call home.
“I wanted all the lockers to look the same when everybody walked in. That was really important to me,” Smith said. “I didn’t want anyone feeling like they had Covid lockers. They all deserve the same lockers.”
Smith signed the largest recruiting class in her coaching history with 10 freshmen arriving this fall. The group Smith calls her “Covid seniors” — Cayla Drotar, Kenzi Maguire, Mackenzie Boesel and Lauren Stewart — all decided to return this season and pursue graduate degrees.
Having never managed a roster with more than 21 players before, Smith knows the season will be a learning experience.
“I have spent most of my time over Covid thinking about managing that right, because I think that can present more problems at times as a coach,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how I want to challenge this roster and how to get the same connection with the players when you have to manage a roster of this size.”
She will face another hurdle once the season arrives because the SEC only allows teams to travel with 22 players. As of now, at least five players will need to stay behind.
“I have never done that before,” Smith said. “That is something I am really going to have to figure out by spring.”
Athleticism and versatility are what stand out the most from the incoming freshmen class. The 10 players were recruited with a heavy emphasis on replacing the middle of the field for the Gamecocks. Seven of the 10 bat left-handed.
Infielders Maddie Gallagher and Riley Blampied both played for the USA Softball Under-17 team. Right-hander Leah Powell and lefty Skylar Trahan will see time in the circle, and catcher Leslie “Chooch” Carroll catcher possesses right-handed power.
Zoe Laneaux is a powerful left-hander who can man the corner infield positions, and Aaliyah White and Carlie Henderson bring speed in the outfield. Kylee Gleason was South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year.
“It is a great group,” Smith said. “They are very talented, and have been really fun to watch and incorporate into the program.”
Senior Kelsey Oh is on the road to recovery after suffering a foot injury last season that required surgery. The right-hander was 4-2 with a 2.14 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 32.2 innings last season before going down.
“Covid was really a blessing for Kelsey in the sense it gave her a chance to have surgery and heal,” Smith said. “She was off to a great 2020 campaign and was pitching fantastic, so it’s great to have her back healthy again.”
Graduate senior Cayla Drotar also had her season cut short by injury. She had a 3.26 ERA in 19.1 innings.
Having Oh and Drotar sidelined gave an opportunity for sophomores Karsen Ochs and Bailey Betenbaugh to get some meaningful innings under their belts against quality competition.
Powell and Trahan will provide added depth in the circle for the Gamecocks.
Graduate senior Mackenzie Boesel brings power to the South Carolina lineup. She batted .317 with 11 RBIs in 60 at-bats last season.
Graduate senior shortstop Kenzi Maguire batted .328 with a .521 on-base percentage. She has 58 career hit-by-pitches.
Smith has seen growth from junior catcher Jordan Fabian.
“You could tell she has put in a lot of work over Covid,” Smith said. “She looks great. Her arm is strong and she’s hitting the ball really well. I am excited to see what she does this season.”
The Gamecocks expect freshmen Laneaux and Carroll to add more pop to the lineup.
“They have the opportunity to change the game with one swing,” Smith said. “They still have to face live pitching at this level, but their upside is strong just from a power standpoint.”
South Carolina’s veterans will be expected to continue in their leadership roles. Maguire returns as a captain and Boesel will be looked to for more leadership this season.
“All of the seniors are some of the greats to have worn the jersey and can take the lead,” Smith said. “I am excited for them to finish out their careers and really establish career records that they have earned.”
But grade level doesn’t dictate leadership responsibilities for the Gamecocks.
“I am really interested to see what younger players kind of emerge,” Smith said. “Leadership is something we work on and try to give people an opportunity to grow in that area.”
The larger roster size does have a major benefit for South Carolina. It has enabled the Gamecocks to play true intrasquad scrimmages this Fall since SEC programs are not allowed to play other teams because of Covid-19 restrictions.
South Carolina selected two full teams to play a seven-game series.
“We really put a lot of thought and energy into that as coaches,” Smith said. “We wanted to make it a big deal for our team. No fans are allowed, but we are going to video it for the parents to be able to watch.”
Smith has already seen a big difference in practice as a result of having more players in the program.
“The competition level is higher right now. Everybody out there recognizes that you have to make your reps count,” Smith said. “I just think it has elevated people’s games a little bit because they want to make a statement and their moment is out there. It’s been fun to watch.”
It caught Smith by complete surprise when junior third baseman Jana Johns elected to transfer to Oklahoma in June. Johns was one of the top defensive players in the SEC and hit 15 home runs with 44 RBIs as a sophomore.
“It was out of the blue,” Smith said. “I would have lost all my money on that deal. I never saw that coming.”
Johns was one of three Gamecocks to enter the transfer portal in the offseason — the first three under Smith at South Carolina.
“I think everyone has their own reasons,” Smith said. “I can go to bed each night and sleep well knowing there is a strong culture we have here and what a great experience South Carolina provides for their student-athletes.”