Weekend Rewind: The bottom line on South Carolina's sweep of Tennessee
A single softball game is often an accurate reflection of the events of an afternoon or evening, but it is not always the most accurate measure of whether one team is superior to another.
Even a series doesn't always reveal absolute truth as much as it reflects random chance. Strange things happen. Things like the winning run scoring on a wild pitch during an intentional walk.
So maybe No. 15 South Carolina sweeping a series against No. 2 Tennessee, three times defeating a team that arrived in Columbia with one loss this season, isn't definitive proof that the Gamecocks are better than the Lady Vols or more likely to make it to Oklahoma City. There were, after all, perhaps a dozen ways in which at least two games could have gone either way, up to and including that wild pitch that ended Friday's series opener.
But a program that has been building slowly toward a championship standard, doing so in a conference that isn't kind to stragglers, showed it can compete with anyone. And in this case, beat anyone. Three times in a row, twice in walk-off fashion and once by run rule.
In that light, the most impressive part of the weekend wasn't perfection but perseverance.
In the series opener, Tennessee took an early 3-0 lead, two of those runs scored with two outs after an error on South Carolina shortstop Kenzi Maguire prolonged the inning. An inning later, with a hit from Maguire instrumental in the sequence, the Gamecocks scored three times with two outs to pull level. Nicely done, except a Tennessee offense that arrived among the SEC leaders in on-base percentage and total bases kept up the pressure on South Carolina pitching and soon led 7-3.
Again, South Carolina came back. Tiara Duffy cut the deficit in half with a home run in the bottom of the fifth inning, and Jana Johns erased it with a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the sixth inning. South Carolina then escaped when Tennessee loaded the bases in the top of the seventh, center fielder Kamryn Watts potentially preventing a run with her fielding on the single that loaded the bases.
Finally, after Maguire led off the bottom of the seventh with a double and advanced to third on a ground out, a wild pitch -- as the Lady Vols were attempting to intentionally walk Krystan White -- settled the game.
South Carolina rallied for another walk-off win in the second game of the series by scoring three times in the bottom of the seventh. Batting in succession that inning, Mackenzie Boesel, White and Alyssa VanDerveer saw a total of 20 pitches. Boesel and VanDerveer walked, White struck out, but each worked her at-bat and resisted the temptation to try to be the hero. Instead, one run subsequently scored on a sacrifice foul and Kennedy Clark's single scored two for the win.
Only the finale, a 15-5 rout, avoided late-inning drama. Or late innings, for that matter.
At 5-1 in the conference, South Carolina is already three wins away from matching its total a season ago. And if a pitching staff of a freshman, sophomore and junior transfer finally looked at least a little vulnerable, a lineup that produced 28 runs in three games provided balance.
South Carolina, of course, played college softball before college softball was cool in the South. The Gamecocks made the Women's College World Series before most SEC schools sponsored the sport -- five times in the AIAW World Series and three times since the NCAA took over in 1982. But recent history is leaner. Much leaner. Coach Beverly Smith arrived for the 2011 season, a year after the team went 1-27 in the SEC. The Gamecocks got to 11-13 in the league in 2014, and have five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances after a five-year absence, but they are still searching for their first winning conference record since 2003.
They are considerably closer now than they were even a week ago.
After losing two of three to Arizona State, Washington will surely keep its No. 1 ranking after a three-game sweep against Arizona in which Taran Alvelo allowed one run in 17 innings. Bouncing back from a series loss at Georgia a week ago, Florida crushed Texas A&M in the first two games of a series that concludes Monday. Those teams earned their standing as favorites through weeks of play, the needle nudged little by a single win or loss.
But in showing the tangible ability to score runs and the less tangible persistence to keep giving fortune a chance to favor them, the Gamecocks stole the weekend from all the heavyweights. They did it by playing like they belong among them.