With a new addition to the coaching staff, fresh talent from the transfer portal and a group of experienced upperclassmen returning, the South Carolina softball team is looking to make the postseason for the first time since 2019.
Over the last three seasons, the Gamecocks have seen their winning percentage dip each year and were outscored 283-281 last year.
While the Gamecocks nearly matched pace with their opponents on the scoreboard, they struggled to make big plays. The Gamecock offense put up 38 total home runs to their opponents' 60 homers over the course of the year.
"I think there's a lot of positive energy in the air," head coach Beverly Smith said. "We've addressed the things as a program that we've needed to address this year."
Those changes started with a number of new additions to the team, including new assistant coach Josh Bloomer, who was hired to head South Carolina's hitting after three seasons as an assistant at Duke.
“I think we’re just going to be a more exciting and aggressive and balanced offense,” Smith said.
Smith also said she expects the infusion of veterans from the transfer portal to play a significant role in the team's success.
One of the team's new arms is senior pitcher Donnie Gobourne. Gobourne transferred from Florida Atlantic University, where she put up a 4.33 ERA and struck out 89 batters in 64.2 innings for the Owls in 2022.
“She throws heat,” Smith said. “I think she’s gonna do a great job coming in and closing games for us.”
In addition to Gobourne, Smith and her staff added four transfers in the field. The group includes sophomore infielder Brooke Blankenship from Florida State, junior outfielder and utility player Aniyah Black from Georgia, junior catcher and utility player Jenn Cummings from Washington and fifth-year utility player Natalie Morgan from Furman.
The 2023 team also includes a handful of veteran Gamecocks who have been key contributors over the last few seasons. One familiar face fans will see this season is fifth-year pitcher Rachel Vaughan, who returns for her fifth season after leading the team with a 2.96 ERA in 2022.
Alongside with Vaughan, fifth-year catcher and infielder Jordan Fabian elected to take advantage of her fifth year of eligibility to follow up a productive senior season.
“I wasn’t ready to give up softball,” Fabian said. “I wasn’t ready to hang up the cleats.”
Fabian has progressed substantially in her time as a Gamecock, improving from a .187 batting average as a freshman to leading the team in runs, stolen bases and walks as a senior. In 2022, Fabian crossed the plate 47 times and stole 17 bases, as well as set a program record for walks with 42.
“I’m a very different player than I was when I got here freshman year,” Fabian said. “It started coming together last year, and I’m feeling good for this year as well.”
Smith praised Fabian for her development into one of the team's leaders both on and off of the diamond, highlighting her as one of the most important players to watch this season.
“(Jordan Fabian) is a great example of what player development looks like,” Smith said. “I certainly expect her to lead our team this year.”
According to Black, the team has a great opportunity to combine talent from the transfer portal with returning Gamecocks who contributed over the past few years.
“The biggest thing for us is starting to instill the belief that we can be where (the team was) a few years ago,” Black said. “And I think the coaches and the girls have made a great effort to do so.”
In her twelve seasons as head coach, Smith has taken the Gamecocks to seven regionals, five regional finals and one super regional. She believes that getting back to the postseason is the top priority for 2023, and the team agrees, according to Fabian.
“It’s the biggest thing that we’re looking forward to,” Fabian said. “I think we have what it takes to get there.”
The Gamecocks open their season on Feb. 9, when they travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, to take on the Charlotte 49ers. That game is the first for the team in the Charlotte Invitational, a tournament where the Gamecocks will face Miami (Ohio) on Feb. 10, Campbell on Feb. 11, and ETSU and Charlotte on Feb. 12.