By Todd Shanesy
Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 3:15 a.m. on GoUpstate.com
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 12:51 a.m.
USC Upstate has a top-25 team.
For the first time in school history, USC Upstate cracked the national rankings in an NCAA Division I major poll as the softball squad on Tuesday was listed as No. 24 in the country. The Spartans (32-3) joined the list ahead of North Carolina as Oregon State and Wisconsin dropped out.
“We’re USC Upstate,” head coach Chris Hawkins said. “It’s incredible to be recognized as one of the top 25 teams in the country. For us to be there with some of the biggest schools in the country is pretty amazing.”
USC Upstate, in fact, is the only so-called mid-major team even receiving votes for the top 25 and suffered two of its three losses against No. 3 Florida and No. 18 Kentucky. The Spartans lead the country with a .358 batting average, are fourth in defense with a .980 fielding percentage and rank among the top 20 in pitching with a 1.84 ERA.
“I hope we can just maintain what we’re doing, which is concentrating on each pitch and doing the little things that we have to do to win,” Hawkins said. “We don’t need to do anything differently.”
With such a monumental goal realized, now comes another challenge: Trying to stay in the top 25. The Spartans, 13-1 in the Atlantic Sun (the only loss in the opener against North Florida) host a 4 p.m. league doubleheader today against East Tennessee State at Cyrill Stadium.
“Naturally, there is going to be more pressure,” Hawkins said. “But I think we can handle it. I think we have a group of players with good heads on their shoulders and they understand what it takes to keep climbing. Our girls really react well to pressure.”
For an example of that, look no further back than Sunday against Stetson.
With a top-25 spot on the line, the Spartans were down, 3-1, in the fifth inning when Cheyenne Griffin from Byrnes High School hit three-run home run for the lead. Tied in the final frame, Dana Landers from Mauldin High crushed a two-run, walk-off homer.
USC Upstate, picked by league coaches to finish third in the conference behind Florida Gulf Coast and Kennesaw State, has a two-game lead on Jacksonville. FGCU and North Florida are tied for third at 8-4, while KSU is seventh at 8-8.
The Spartans are being led at the plate by Maddison Keiffer with a .447 average with five homers and 33 RBIs, Ericka Harris at .411 and Meredith Barnes at .396 with six homers. Hayley Reinfeld is at .375, Kendall Settlemyer at .361, Shellie Robinson at .356 with a team-high eight homers and 36 RBIs.
On the mound, the Spartans have the combination of Jamie Ujvari (14-0, 1.45 ERA) and Hannah Alexander (14-2, 1.79).