Gamecocks poised for fifth straight tournament appearance behind Blue's pitching, Snaer's hitting

With four straight NCAA Tournament appearances under coach Beverly Smith, the South Carolina softball team is poised for another winning season in 2017.

But the Gamecocks will have to outplay some of the best Division I competition to advance to a Super Regional for the first time in 10 years.

South Carolina finished 38-23 overall and 7-17 in the SEC in 2016 and was ranked 24th in Rating Percentage Index (RPI). This season, the Gamecocks are scheduled to play 33 games against teams that appeared in the NCAA Tournament last season. Eighteen of those games will be against teams in last year's Super Regionals and 15 against Women's College World Series teams.

Pitching

Senior pitchers Nickie Blue and Jessica Elliott will return to the mound in 2017. Blue will be a top starter and also will see some time as a reliever. Last season, the 6-foot-1 ace led the Gamecocks in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio and walks and hits per innings pitched. Similar to Blue, Elliott will be utilized as a starter and reliever. The right-hander started 36 games and had 11 relief appearances last season. She posted a 2.77 ERA with an 18-10 record and threw six complete games in 179.1 innings. The seniors will be joined by three-time South Carolina Gatorade High School Player of the Year Cayla Drotar, as well as junior Hayley Copeland. The coaches are hoping Drotar, a freshman, can help take the burden off the two seniors.

Returning players

Fourteen Gamecocks are returning to the diamond in 2017. The 2016 leading hitter, Kaylea Snaer, has big things in store for her senior season. The first baseman compiled a team-high 68 hits and 41 RBIs to go with a .374 batting average last year. With power hitters Alaynie Page and Ansley Ard graduating, all eyes will be on Snaer to steer the Gamecock offense.

Outfielder Kennedy Clark is primed to have a standout sophomore season both offensively and defensively. In 2016, the California native set the program record for on-base percentage for a freshman at .430. She batted .310 with 54 hits and 36 RBIs, the third most on the team. Recognized for her outstanding defense, Clark did not commit a single error last season and earned SEC Co-Freshman of the Week honors on March 7.

New faces

The Gamecocks welcome three freshmen and four transfer students this season. With starting catcher Jordan Bizzell graduating in 2016, Penn State transfer Alyssa VanDerveer will be counted on to help fill the void behind home plate. The All-Big Ten catcher hit 24 home runs in her two years with the Nittany Lions. Second baseman Alexis Mack transferred to Oregon at the end of last season, so freshman infielder Mackenzie Boesel is expected to see substantial time there. As Boesel was a shortstop in high school, the Gamecocks’ infield defense will likely feature shortstops at three spots, joining sophomore Kenzi Maguire at shortstop and junior Kamryn Watts at third base. Lauren Stewart, a sophomore transfer from Purdue, led the Boilermakers in runs and doubles and she started all 55 games as a freshman. Junior outfielder Shannon Plese transferred from Chattanooga State Community College, after she helped lead the Tigers to the NJCAA Division I World Series in 2015. As a sophomore, she batted .437 with 23 doubles.

The Gamecocks will start the season by hosting the Carolina Classic at the Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field. The tournament will begin with a double-header against Ohio at 3 p.m. and Presbyterian at 5:30 p.m. Friday.



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