C.J. Browder made an early statement for this year's USC Beaufort softball team.
After a two-homer performance in USCB's doubleheader sweep of St. Andrew's in its Feb. 2 opener, the junior transfer from Northwest Florida State said the Sand Sharks were deeper than last year and would "bring it" this season.
"We've got a lot that we need to unleash," Browder said then, "and we haven't unleashed it, yet."
Needless to say, Browder's play -- and her talk -- set the tone for USCB this season.
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In last year's inaugural season, the Sand Sharks were the new kids on the block, just trying to prove they belonged. With 37 wins and a brash expect-to-win attitude that rubbed some opponents the wrong way, they succeeded. But this year, they don't want to prove they belong on the block. They want to prove they own it.
Ninth-ranked USC Beaufort hosts Spring Hill (Ala.), Virginia Intermont and Cumberland today through Wednesday in the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round at Richard Gray Sports Complex in Hardeeville.
The winner of the double-elimination tournament advances to the NAIA National Championship from May 24 to May 30 at South Commons Softball Complex in Columbus, Ga.
"I knew we were going to do nothing but go higher," said junior infielder Katie Rietkovich. "My expectation was to do better than last year. We had three goals this season. Win the conference, win the Opening Round and win the national championship.
"So far, we've accomplished the first."
Despite such a stellar first season, there are a lot of differences between last year's team and this year's USCB team.
"Obviously, people looked at us and said, 'they're not losing anybody and they had 37 wins. They'll be fine,'" coach Ty Rietkovich said. "But we had cracks in our foundation. Three-fourths of our pitching staff from last year hasn't thrown a pitch this season."
Freshman Ashlie Layman, a former Thomas Heyward Academy star, and transfers Caitlin Campbell and Becca Hewitt joined 2013 Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year Kristy Cook to solidify the pitching situation. And Browder and freshman Missy Hughes have stepped right in with the two highest batting averages on the team.
"To say it all fell into place would be an understatement," Ty Rietkovich said. "I don't know where we'd be if we didn't find the people we did."
Ty Rietkovich said he tried to bring in as many good players as he could, convincing them all they'd be able to contribute. He said other coaches asked him how things worked with 20-something players on the roster. He, in turn, said he wonders how they did it with 15.
But that recruiting philosophy has contributed to the one of the Sand Sharks's strengths.
"Our strength is our depth," Katie Rietkovich said. "We have five pinch-hitters we can call on any time. And we have depth in the bullpen. We have four pitchers who all have different styles.That's huge. In a tournament, it may be the fourth or fifth time (someone has) seen you, so having a different pitcher is a big advantage."
If depth is a strength of the Sand Sharks, so is their find-a-way attitude.
"We've always come through with our hitting, whether it's in the first inning or in extra innings," said senior catcher Caitlin Vaughn.
"The difference between a good team and a great team is that little extra," Ty Rietkovich said. "They find ways. These girls feel like they can overcome any obstacle. And we've got players like Caitlin who hold the team accountable. Great leadership on and off the field."
The Sand Sharks are confident about how good they can be. But they've got some people to win over.
The biggest knock on USCB is its conference. The Sun Conference traditionally has not performed well in the NAIA tournament, so a 41-4 record and a conference championship likely hasn't convinced anybody.
"(This) is a chance to live up to our reputation or enhance it. We're not going to tarnish it," Ty Rietkovich said. "For us to receive a No. 1 seed and a host, a lot of people are scratching their heads."
Ty Rietkovich said the best part about making the tournament is an opportunity to face some strong competition from outside the conference.
"We'll find out, are we a good NAIA team, or do we have work to do," Ty Rietkovich said.
Vaughn said that means the Sand Sharks just need to be themselves and play like they know they are capable.
"We have a saying," Vaughn said. "Other teams want to beat us, we just want to be us. At the end of the day, we've just got to be ourselves."
"If we play like we can and lose, we're going to shake hands," Ty Rietkovich said. "We can't do anything more than we can control."
Browder was less diplomatic, not backing away from what she said after that February doubleheader.
"I was absolutely right. We still have more to prove," she said. "And we will, and we'll be in Columbus in a week."