USC Aiken softball coach Jerry Snyder is confident in his team based on what he’s seen heading into the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional, both during the season and since the Pacers last played on April 18.
“We should be hard to beat,” he said of a USCA team with a 32-14 record. “I really do think they’re going to come to play in this.”
The sixth-seeded Pacers lost in a rain-soaked game against Columbus State in the first round of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament and haven’t played since, with the team even taking a break from organized practices during finals. That hasn’t stopped Snyder’s players from taking the initiative to get themselves ready for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011, though.
Every day, he said a group – sometimes nearly the entire team – made its way to the softball field to pitch, hit and throw together, without prompting from the coaching staff.
“It looks like we took 10 days off, but really, we didn’t,” Snyder said.
The Pacers have reason to be eager to take the field today at 2 p.m. against Armstrong (30-12) in Anderson, and that starts with the Pacer pitching. The team is third in the league in ERA at 2.36, and the Pacers have struck out a league-best 437 batters despite playing fewer games than most of the other PBC squads.
Senior India Kornegay anchors that effort with a PBC-best 291 punchouts in 174 innings to go with a 1.89 ERA. She’ll face an Armstrong team that rocked her for eight runs despite 11 strikeouts on March 14 as part of a two-game sweep for the Pirates.
Snyder pointed out that both Kornegay and sophomore pitcher Taylor Morgan were under the weather when the teams met earlier in the season, and he also mentioned past success like an 11-strikeout effort in a win against Armstrong last year.
“India has beat them before, and she seems like she has their number throughout her career here,” he said.
Kornegay will have to contend with two of the league’s best hitters in Alexis Mercer and Lacye Walker. The pair lead the PBC in hitting at .456 and .449 respectively, and Mercer’s 21 home runs are seven clear of the second-best total in the conference.
Walker had a double and a home run against Kornegay earlier this season.
Kornegay was also second in the league in wins with a record of 22-4, her best record as a Pacer with eight more wins than last season when she actually had a better ERA at 1.27. The senior knew where to point the credit for that mark.
“I’ve never won this many games, ever, and that’s a lot to do with hitting,” she said.
A year after being at or near the bottom in most offensive stats, the Pacer bats have found their mark this year. The 2013 Pacers hit just six home runs as a team, while three players – Samantha Chubb (10), Ashley Metts (6) and Magan Thrower (6) – have at least that many this season.
All three were part of Snyder’s recruiting class in the offseason, with Chubb and Metts transferring from Aiken Tech and Thrower coming in from Stratford High in Goose Creek.
“Our new girls have done such a good job offensively,” said senior right fielder Kaitlyn White, noting the first-year Pacers blended into the team’s existing chemistry. “I think them feeling comfortable allowed them to show themselves as hitters.”
White has carried her share of the load as well, as she’s fifth in the PBC in batting average at .386 and first in triples with five. Snyder said that the fast start his team got off to, as evident in an 8-0 season-opening win over Coker with home runs by Metts and freshman Madison Labrador and a triple by White, spread throughout the lineup.
“Hitting is contagious,” he said. “That’s the oldest saying in the world in softball and baseball.”
If the Pacers are to continue catching that fever, they’ll likely have to do so against Olivia McLemore (19-5), who limited the Pacers to two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out eight earlier this season.
Regardless of the seeding or past results in today’s matchup against No. 3 Armstrong, Snyder is excited to be playing in the NCAA Tournament again. He even went as far as to say he “felt a lot better” about this year’s squad than his past tournament teams.
“We’re in,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re first or sixth; we’re in the show.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.
2014 NCAA Division II Softball
Southeast Region Tournament
Anderson (Smethers Field)
• Game One: No. 3 Armstrong (30-12) vs. No. 6 USC Aiken (32-14), 2 p.m.
• Game Two: No. 2 Anderson (42-10) vs. No. 7 Ga. College (34-15), 4:30 p.m.
• Game Three: Game One winner vs. Game Two winner, 11 a.m.
• Game Four: Game One loser vs. Game Two loser, 1:30 p.m.
• Game Five: Game Three loser vs. Game Four winner, 4 p.m.
• Game Six (Championship): Game Three winner vs. Game Five winner, Noon
• Game Seven (if necessary): 2:30 p.m.