Between returners with new confidence, transfers with a resume and fresh talent on both the roster and staff, the South Carolina softball team is looking to build off of a solid 2023 season, with hopes of making it further in the postseason.
The Gamecocks finished last season with a 40-22 record and made a trip to the SEC Tournament and NCAA Regionals to add to its resume.
The 2023 team made it all the way to the SEC Championship game, but fell to Tennessee, 3-1. The Gamecocks' NCAA Tournament run was also cut short when the team was unable to put a run on the board against Florida State in the Tallahassee Regionals.
With no trophy to show for it, South Carolina wants more in 2024 and is using 2023’s experience as its starting base.
Even without hardware, the accolades are coming in early.
The Gamecocks are ranked No. 23 in the USA Today and National Fastpitch Coaches Association preseason Top-25 poll, No. 17 by Softball America, No. 22 by D1softball and No. 22 by ESPN and USA Softball.
Head coach Beverly Smith said she saw a fire spark in her team coming from the SEC Tournament run.
“That run really gave our team the confidence that they still talk about today,” Smith said. “The returners are back with that level of confidence they played with at the end of the season.”
Among those returners are senior infielder Riley Blampied, junior infielder Brooke Blankenship, junior outfielder Marissa Gonzalez, senior outfielder and utility player Aniyah Black and senior infielder Zoe Laneaux.
Blampied drove in 42 runs on 45 hits in the 2023 season and saw 25 at-bats in the postseason.
“I’ve been here all four years, and I did not get to experience a postseason feeling until last year,” Blampied said. “That feeling was like no other, and like coach Bev said, I want every game to feel like the postseason.”
Blampied and the rest of the offense are led by new hitting coach Jake Epstein. Epstein spent the last six seasons as a hitting consultant in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
“He turns us into machines up there at the plate,” Blampied said.
Epstein's experience has made him a great fit for the team, Smith said when the coach was first brought on. Along with serving as a consultant for the Brewers, Epstein has worked as a consultant with the Padres and Giants. He was a baseball hitting coach for the University of Missouri in 2019, as well.
Meanwhile in the circle, South Carolina welcomes fifth-year transfer Alana Vawter, who has already been named to the preseason All-SEC Team.
Vawter comes from Stanford, where she ranks top-five in the program’s wins, shutouts, strikeouts and innings pitched. Vawter also pitched in the 2023 Women's College World Series.
And she’s one answer to a big question facing the new 2024 roster: How is Smith going to replace former pitcher Donnie Gobourne and catcher and infielder Jordan Fabian?
Last season, Gobourne tallied 202 strikeouts in 134.2 innings pitched. She led the team in innings, ERA, strikeouts, shutouts and complete games. Fabian led the roster with 10 home runs and ranked second in RBI's with 32 in her 163 at-bats. Gobourne was responsible for over half the team's strikeouts, and Fabian accounted for almost a fourth of the homers.
“I think we have some answers," Smith said. "We have, we gained five transfers that are here, we’ve got four excellent freshmen, added to a group of seasoned returners.”
Joining Vawter on the list of newcomers are transfers redshirt senior utility Kianna Jones, senior infielder Denver Bryant, redshirt junior outfielder Bre Warren and sophomore infielder Kiki Estrada.
Joining the program out of high school are freshmen pitcher and infielder Reganne Bennett, pitcher Sage Mardjetko, utility Sophia Grillo and infielder Karley Shelton.
Bennett and Mardjetko will join the pitching staff, with Mardjetko likely to see innings early in her collegiate career, Smith said.
Mardjetko was named the 2023 USA Today's High School Sports Awards National Softball Player of the Year. Both Mardjetko and Bennett were named Softball Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, with Mardjetko claiming the Illinois title and Bennett the Michigan title.
“It’s really cool to think about what the pitching staff can add to a team,” Vawter said. “It’s really cool to think about the pitcher being the catalyst for the team, and I really think that both of these freshman bring that energy, that competitive nature.”
The job for Smith and staff is to piece together a competitive team building off the returning players’ 2023 run, Vawter’s College World Series experience and other incoming talents in transfers and freshmen.
There are a few questions left to be answered such as South Carolina’s starting defense. But the 2024 roster has depth, Smith said.
“The only positions I know for sure will be Riley Blampied in centerfield and Brooke Blankenship at shortstop,” Smith said. “All the other positions on the field right now are up for grabs.”
But Smith said that means she's in a good position. The coaching staff has the opportunity to make decisions depending on the matchups and pitchers her team is faced with, she said.
This year, the goal is to host in the postseason, Smith said.
2023 was the first season the team won at least 40 games since 2018, and it was the first season the team reached the NCAA Tournament since 2019.
Following the successes seen in 2023, the pressure is on for 2024.
“Pressure's a big thing to think about before a season, how you kinda can take it and roll with it,” Vawter said. “I think a lot of that is just going to be relying on one another and relying on my teammates to just kind of be there all the time, all the way through the season.”
South Carolina will begin its season when it hosts the Carolina Classic from Feb. 9 to 11 at Beckham Field.