But because they did – unwaveringly so – the Gamecocks are Ohio Valley Conference softball champions today and heading for an NCAA Regional in Tuscaloosa.
The sixth-seeded Gamecocks completed a somewhat improbable four-game sweep through the conference tournament Sunday with a 2-0 title game win over UT Martin in Charleston, Ill.
They now play No. 10 national seed and defending national champion Alabama (42-13) in their regional opener Friday at 6 p.m. Sun Belt regular-season champion Western Kentucky (41-16) and Atlantic Sun champion South Carolina-Upstate (41-10) will play in the regional's other game at 3:30 p.m. Alabama is the top seed, while Western Kentucky is second, South Carolina-Upstate third and JSU fourth.
“When I saw we were not going to the Knoxville Region, I told the team it’ll be Alabama,” said JSU coach Jana McGinnis, whose team watched the selection show from a restaurant in Smyrna, Tenn. “Hey, we’re happy to be in.
“Alabama is is a tough test, but it didn’t matter who we opened with, it was going to be a tough task. I know as young people they probably wanted to go to a new college because we’re very familiar with Alabama and a lot of the players on their team, but it’ll be a good experience. I’m glad we’re in.”
The Gamecocks (30-25) entered the eight-team OVC Tournament one game over .500, but matched their longest winning streak of the season to become the lowest seeded team ever to win the tournament. It is their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in six years and sixth overall. They last won the conference tournament in 2011, when they went to the Louisville Regional.
“This one is so much sweeter,” junior center fielder Hayden Crawford said, “because no one thought we had a single world’s chance at this and we just proved everybody wrong. Everybody.”
Junior pitcher Tiffany Harbin was named tournament MVP for the second time in three years after holding the fifth-seeded Skyhawks (37-20) to three hits in her fourth complete-game of the tournament. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Crawford, second baseman Kelci Johnston and left-fielder Krystal Ruth.
“With the season we’ve all been through, the ups and the downs, this is just exciting,” Johnston said. “This is huge for the team. We silenced the doubters. Some people coming into this, they questioned what we were going to do, but we did it. We won.”
Crawford, who went 6-for-9 in the tournament and made a nice defensive play in the third inning, scored the game’s first run on a wild pitch in the fifth inning. Johnston added an insurance run with a leadoff homer in the sixth and had five RBIs in the tournament.
“I had a terrible, terrible regular season and I just came into the tournament knowing I had something to prove to everyone,” said Crawford, who entered the postseason batting .111. “Every time I went up to bat I knew I was getting a hit ... to prove to these people that this is not the player that I am.”
Once the Gamecocks got the lead, it fell to Harbin to close the door. She threw 124 pitches in the game, 498 in her four victories. In 30 tournament innings she allowed 19 hits, three earned runs and struck out 39.
Crawford called her teammate “absolutely consistent and amazing.” McGinnis called it “one of the best performances I’ve ever seen as a coach,” defining the right-hander as the best pitcher in the league.
McGinnis said Harbin told her she was prepared to go 20 innings Sunday if that’s what it took to close out the tournament in one game.
“We know she’s a special pitcher,” McGinnis said. “This year has been rough for her. She had some outings where she’s gotten roughed up, but in the last three weeks we’ve seen her change, take her pitching to another level, her focus and intensity.
“We had a conversation in the hotel before the tournament after we watched all the underclassmen get (the postseason awards) and I said, ‘Tif, this veteran we’ve got is going to show these underclassmen how to win a tournament.’ She said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ When she gets that look about her and that determination, it’s hard to stop Tiffany Harbin.”
Despite the heavy pitch count, Harbin said she wasn’t tired or sore when it was over. She said a heavy-pitch practice regimen prepared her for the week and she insists “I’ll be ready” for the regional and beyond.
It’s that work ethic, which McGinnis said runs throughout the roster and upstages any shortage of talent, that’s defined the Gamecocks’ run to the title.
“I’ve been running on adrenaline this whole week,” Harbin said. “I can’t sleep at night because I’m so excited about the next day. Maybe I’ll sleep now.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Anniston Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.