Head coach Beverly Smith and the South Carolina Gamecocks softball team return to the diamond for the first time in nearly one year this weekend at the Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field, after finishing 38-19 (9-14, Southeastern Conference) in 2019.
South Carolina will open against North Dakota State Friday at 2:30 p.m, which will be followed by a 5:00 p.m. game against Southern Illinois. To round off the weekend, the Gamecocks will face Ohio State Saturday and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Sunday.
The Gamecocks exited the 64-team NCAA Tournament in the regionals in 2019 after losing twice in the double-elimination tournament.
South Carolina has expectations for the upcoming season from national media pundits, especially after qualifying for the tournament seven consecutive times under Smith. USA Today lists the Gamecocks as No. 19 in their preseason poll, while ESPN has UofSC ranked No. 21.
But it took hard work and perseverance for Smith to get South Carolina to this point.
Hall-of-Famer and former head coach Joyce Compton led South Carolina to great success during 24 years with the program including 951 wins, 13 trips to the tournament, and two trips to the Women's College World Series.
However, the Gamecocks struggled during the end of the Compton era, missing the tournament five consecutive years between 2008 and 2012.
Smith who was hired by South Carolina in 2011, was tasked with rebuilding the program. Entering her tenth season with the Gamecocks, she reflected on her time in Columbia when speaking with local media Tuesday.
"Only a few people know how far we've come in the last ten years. But I look back, and I'm so proud of that," she said.
The next step for the rising program would be reaching the NCAA Women's College World Series, hosted annually in Oklahoma City. Similarly to NCAA Baseball's College World Series, eight teams compete for the sport's national championship in front of thousands of fans and a national television audience.
South Carolina last qualified for the super regionals in 2018, but haven't reached the WCWS since 1997.
If the Gamecocks plan on returning to Oklahoma City, the road won't be easy.
South Carolina plays in one of the toughest conferences in the nation as a member of the SEC, where they will face seven ranked schools: No. 2 Alabama, No. 7 Florida,
No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Tennessee, No. 16 Georgia, and No. 23 Auburn.
Four non-conference opponents are ranked, including No. 1 Washington, No. 17 Michigan, and No. 23 Auburn.
Fortunately for the Gamecocks, they return experience from last season's 38-win campaign, with 16 players returning.
Junior Jana Jones is pivotal at the plate, leading South Carolina with 15 home runs, a figure that ranked No. 50 in the nation last season.
On the mound, Cayla Drotar leads a group of three pitchers that each made at least 11 starts in 2019. The senior was No. 9 in the NCAA with six saves. Kelsey Oh and Karly Heath also return to the program.
Drotar is a dual-threat weapon for the Gamecocks. The Hartsville, SC, native led the Gamecocks with 49 runs batted in and was second on the team with 10 home runs.