Upstate community sends softball off to Knoxville Regional
By Austin Stein
The Upstate NCAA Tournament-bound softball team received a cheerful sendoff Thursday morning for their trip to the Knoxville Regional. Family, friends and Upstate staff and officials cheered the team as the bus departed the Hodge Center at 9:15 a.m.
Upstate’s fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament, and first to Knoxville, features Tennessee, Ohio State and Longwood. Upstate (44-11) plays Ohio State (35-16) at 4:30 Friday with host Tennessee (44-10) playing Longwood (28-27) in the second game.
The Spartans game will be streamed on WatchESPN and the ESPN app with Lisa Byingham and Jennie Ritter the commentators.
Upstate and Ohio State are tied for 25th in this week’s ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 Poll. It’s Upstate’s first time in the polls since May 2014.
The Spartans are 2-0 versus Ohio State, winning 2-0 in 2016 and 4-3 in 1988. The Spartans are 4-8 all-time in NCAA Regional play.
The Spartans expressed confidence. “You couldn’t ask for a better team, a better coaching staff, even a better school,” Ryan Rector said. “There’s just the essence about being a USC Upstate softball player. You have a lot of people in the community and at the school that look up to you and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Rector is batting .307 and is among six Spartans batting over .300.
Sophomore Brittany Case is batting .323 and is making her second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. “It’s truly an honor to be part of the Upstate softball team because this is one of the teams on campus that really prides ourselves on going to the NCAA tournament. Winning our (ASUN) tournament every year (three consecutive) is just something that we do.”
Upstate, last week, won its third straight ASUN Softball Championship, and fourth in five seasons.
Gemma Miller said the team enjoys bus trips, she uses trips to catch up on sleep, and there is a seating order. “We definitely have our favorite seats,” Miller said.
Miller, a junior from Edmonds, Wash., said there’s nothing better to do than play tournament baseball after school is out. “It’s awesome being an Upstate softball player,” she said. “I love the team and there’s no place I would rather be.”
It’s Upstate’s first time playing an NCAA Region tournament in Knoxville. The Spartans rank seventh in the NCAA in ERA (1.37).
Holly McKinnon and Lexi Shubert, both seniors, give Upstate a powerful 1-2 punch in pitching. McKinnon (24-7, 1.36 earned run average) was pitcher of the year and Shubert (19-4, 1.43 ERA) joined McKinnon on the All-ASUN Conference team.
“Either one of them (McKinnon and Shubert) could have won league pitcher of the year,” Head Coach Chris Hawkins said. “We have two chances with our pitchers instead of one.”
“We have two number ones, two loaded guns,” Hawkins said, referring to typical tournament teams that have one top starter. Hawkins said he will determine the starter after scouting the teams and determining the best tournament rotation.
“All the pressure is off when you get to this point,” Hawkins said.
Lucy McElroy and Hailey Davis contributed to this report.