The Daily Gamecock

South Carolina women's sports face annual turnover on rosters due to NIL, use transfer portal to help with depth

The world of college athletics has undergone major changes in recent years. From conference realignment to ever-expanding playoff systems, there is one change that has stuck out from the rest: the transfer portal.

The NCAA transfer portal was established in 2018 as an easier way for student-athletes to transfer schools. In 2021, the NCAA ruled that transfer students would no longer have to sit out a full season upon transferring as they previously did. 

The transfer portal is an online database that all NCAA coaches can access. Within this database, coaches across the NCAA can see which student-athletes have registered for the portal along with basic contact information.

The transfer portal and name, image and likeness deals have affected women’s college sports by allowing student-athletes to continue their education when there may not be a professional league they can join.

Head softball coach Beverly Smith said the presence of the transfer portal is a "new landscape” in the greater realm of college athletics. Despite its recency, Smith has used the portal to improve her team by recruiting transfer players, who have led her team from a last-place SEC finish in 2021 to almost winning the SEC tournament in 2023.

Smith added five new players via the portal over the summer and winter breaks of 2023.

Those players are senior infielder Denver Bryant from Auburn, fifth-year pitcher Alana Vawter from Stanford, redshirt junior outfielder Bre Warren from Texas A&M, redshirt senior utility player Kianna Jones from North Carolina and sophomore infielder Kiki Estrada from Arkansas.

The makeup of Smith's roster can fluctuate greatly from season to season with players both leaving and arriving from the portal, Smith said. The transfer portal is particularly useful, she said, when she has to account for injuries that could potentially impact her team during the season.

“If you have an injury — Denver Bryant’s a perfect example,” Smith said. “We thought we were going to be really thin in the middle. Denver Bryant was in the portal, and she really has come in and gives us instant depth and experience in the middle infield.”

The only professional softball league in the United States is Women's Professional Fastpitch. It has four teams, and a draft that consists of 24 picks.

The transfer portal has given many players opportunities to continue their careers after not getting much playing time at previous schools or having to switch schools due to academic reasons, with playing being an added bonus.

Vawter came to the university to pursue a master's degree after not getting into a graduate program at Stanford at the beginning of 2023.

“I didn’t get into my graduate program,” Vawter said. “I kind of knew that that was what I wanted out of my extra year of eligibility from COVID, and so I knew that there was going to have to be other options.”

Vawter, as of Feb. 29, has pitched 34.1 innings across 10 games with a 1.83 ERA, 29 strikeouts and five walks.

Vawter's presence on the mound has helped the Gamecocks, as the team has won eight of the 10 games she has pitched in. But Vawter was not the first transfer player to make an impact on the softball team.

The softball team went 26-30 (3-21 SEC) in 2022. It improved to 40-22 (9-15 SEC) in 2023 and almost won the SEC tournament with help from then-junior utility player Aniyah Black from Georgia and then-junior catcher Jen Cummings from Washington.

Black finished the year with a .278 batting average, 37 hits and 26 RBIs. Cummings finished the year with a .276 batting average, 35 hits and 26 RBIs.

Black played in 56 games in the 2023 season. Prior to transferring, she had played in 51 total games over the course of two seasons. It was a similar story for Cummings. She played in 61 games in the 2023 season and had only played in 57 over her two years at Washington.

But the high turnover rate is not always beneficial to the players involved.

The National Women's Soccer League holds an annual draft for college players looking to join the league. There are 56 total picks made in the draft, and there are 333 Division 1 women's soccer teams, leading players to enter the portal to maximize their playing time.

But head women’s soccer coach Shelley Smith said some players enter the portal before giving themselves a chance to break through in their first teams.

"I think students become anxious and move before they give themselves a shot," Shelley Smith said. "Sometimes it’s a great opportunity for the person to have a better fit because, if something didn’t fit exactly right, then they have a chance (to leave). But sometimes, (that is) something that you should work through."

womens transfer portal.png

Just as current student-athletes have been affected by the portal, incoming freshman recruits are also being challenged by it.

Many rosters are full by the summer since many existing collegiate student-athletes transfer schools over winter break. South Carolina's women’s soccer roster is mostly filled up by summertime due to the spring transfer portal opening, Shelley Smith said.

The NCAA allows for 28 roster spots on women's soccer teams. With the ability for coaches to add to their teams as needed and with players returning for their fifth year of eligibility, this has made it harder for freshmen to break into starting lineups, Shelley Smith said.

“It’s just probably made it more difficult for those (incoming freshmen) because rosters are pretty full,” Shelley Smith said. “For us, we have five fifth-year players returning, which is great, but if we keep adding freshmen, the number (they have to compete with) just goes up.”

Beverly Smith said  she and her staff have ongoing communication with incoming freshmen about playing time expectations for softball. The freshmen often compete with more experienced transfer students, she said. 

“They want to know if they’re going to play. How do they fit into what you’re doing?" Beverly Smith said. "I think the freshmen and the younger recruits have certainly felt the effects of the transfer portal.”

Assistant women's soccer coach Jamie Smith said he expects the transfer portal to change once there are no more student-athletes who have one extra year of eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA gave every student-athlete affected by the pandemic an extra year of eligibility since their 2020 seasons were lost. 

The change would see fewer student-athletes enter the portal since there would be fewer of them eligible to compete in the NCAA, Jamie Smith said.

Jamie Smith has targeted experienced players for recruiting, and he prioritizes the quality rather than the quantity of players brought in via the transfer portal, he said.

“It’s been really beneficial for those kids ... where maybe we don’t bring in six, seven, eight transfers like a lot of schools in our conference have been doing,” Jamie Smith said. “For us, it’s more, one or two or three kids here or there, and you’re adding experience and likely filling a hole for a year or two (for) these kids that have that extra year of COVID (eligibility) where they can go get their masters.”

Another factor that has greatly changed college sports is the rise of name, image and likeness. 

NIL allows student-athletes to sign monetary deals with companies or trusts to get paid for advertising a product, making public appearances on behalf of the company or allowing the use of their likenesses.

NIL has given female athletes the ability to make money from their sports for what could be the only time in their careers, due to a lack of professional women's sports leagues.

Jamie Smith said navigating NIL has created challenges, such as weighing the amount of money players can make when recruiting top-level talent in the portal.

“We’re starting to come up against the whole NIL thing,” Jamie Smith said. “We’ve come across more kids out of the portal that are transfers that are getting money on top scholarships.”

Current NCAA rules state that no head coach, member of coaching staff, company or trust with an NIL opportunity may reach out to a student-athlete before they have entered the transfer portal.

But Shelley Smith said she can tell when student-athletes enter the transfer portal to further their NIL endeavors.

“You can tell they've had conversations somewhere, and they’ve entered, because they knew they were going to get a deal or play somewhere. Because, once they enter, they’re top players. They are already decided within a day,” Shelley Smith said. “That’s not the process they’re going through. They’re probably getting something done before they even enter.”

Jamie Smith said the portal can also be good when it comes to student-athletes not gelling with their coaches or the school. But it can also be used in negative ways, he said.

"In that case, the portal can be a great thing on both sides," Jamie Smith said. "I think when people use it to kind of shy away from adversity, I think that can be a negative, so hopefully it's used the right way."