The Daily Gamecock

Softball fifth-year players return to continue education, reunite with teammates

Over their last four years with the Gamecocks, infielder and catcher Jordan Fabian, outfielder Haley Simpson and pitcher Rachel Vaughan have dealt with many highs and lows, from a suspended season due to COVID-19 to multiple season-ending injuries.

When the 2020 season was suspended during the pandemic, the Gamecocks had a 17-6 record after 23 games and were coming off of two wins over Coastal Carolina and Winthrop after a competitive weekend in Athens against the University of Georgia.

Three years later, Simpson, Fabian and Vaughan have all chosen to utilize the extra year of eligibility they received from 2020 and return for a fifth year. 

“I think we all felt that we had gotten gypped on our COVID year,” Simpson said. “We were having a good year, we were ready to face LSU right before they called the season. We came off a good weekend at Georgia, and we all felt like we got cheated out of it, and so I think we all decided then and there if they were going to give us the opportunity, we were going to come back.”

Fabian said the chance to get a master's degree was one of her incentives to return.

“One, I wasn’t ready to give up softball, wasn’t ready to hang up the cleats, and then two, I had the opportunity to continue my education,” Fabian said. “I started my grad program this fall, so I’m in my second term of that, so it was just too good to give up on right now.”

Like Fabian, Vaughan said her education was one of the main reasons for her return.

“I’m able to get my master's degree and continue my education that way,” Vaughan said. “So it’s just a great opportunity to be able to come back and finish my fifth year out with all these great people.”

Fabian, who has been playing with Simpson and Vaughan since their freshman season in 2019, said the relationships she has formed with teammates also encouraged her to come back for another year.

“It’s been a lot of fun the last few years, this year too. Like I said, I wasn’t ready to hang it up and tell my girls goodbye,” Fabian said. "I’ve definitely made some lifelong friends here, and it’ll definitely be sad when it’s done.”

Fabian, Vaughan and Simpson have helped provide an on-the-field spark with their veteran presence while serving as leaders off of the field, as well, head coach Beverly Smith said.

“They add a lot of experience, a lot of maturity, and I think we’ve got transfers who also bring that as well,” Smith said. “So they’ve come in and added experience and, I would say, wisdom and perspective for us, too.”

Even though all three fifth-years are now regulars on Smith's lineup card, their collegiate journeys are far from similar. 

Fabian struggled in her first season as a Gamecock, carrying just a .187 batting average in 50 games. However, she rebounded after the 2020 shortened season, hitting .258 over 49 games played in 2021. She further improved in her 2022 season, hitting .303 and walking a program-high 42 times.

Vaughan pitched just under 30 innings in each of her 2021 and 2022 seasons. She had a bounce-back year in 2021 after throwing for a 4.35 ERA in 27.1 innings pitched through 11 games with the Gamecocks. In 2022, Vaughan pitched to a 2.96 ERA in 28.1 innings pitched over 19 games. 

While Fabian and Vaughan were nearly everyday contributors, Simpson had to wait awhile before getting her chance. Simpson last saw consistent play during the shortened 2020 season. Through 21 games in that season, Simpson hit for a .353 batting average with seven stolen bases. In her only full season as a Gamecock in 2019, she had a .264 batting average with a perfect fielding percentage over 47 games played. 

Simpson would miss the entirety of both the 2021 and 2022 seasons with injuries, but she announced her return this season with a bang. In her first at-bat in 1,086 days, Simpson hit a home run that extended South Carolina’s lead over Western Kentucky to nine runs on Feb. 19.

“If we can keep (Simpson) in the lineup, that’s gonna be key,” Smith said.

With the return of Fabian's and Simpson's bats plus Vaughan's pitching, Smith hopes to reach her goal of hosting a regional in this year's NCAA tournament.