Dawn Staley And Beverly Smith's Lasting Friendship
It was scoreless in the top of the fourth inning on Monday night in Columbia, S.C., where then-No. 15 Ole Miss and No. 19 South Carolina were battling each other and the weather.
Sitting down the left field line, in the front row just beyond the visitor’s dugout was South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley who had just returned from Charlotte, where the Gamecock women had secured their sixth consecutive Sweet 16 berth.
Then, she begins to talk about her love for softball just as it began to sprinkle.
“I played softball in high school and I played on some club teams growing up,” Staley said. “I love the poise. A lot of things can happen where there are two outs, two strikes. I’m just amazed at the poise of the players on both sides of the ball.”
Brittany Finney hits a home run to put Ole Miss on top 2-0 and Staley interjects with disappointment but immediately returns to her thought.
“I love to see athletes perform in pressure situations and with softball, it’s up close and it’s incredible,” she said. “We see it on tv but to see it here really hits home with me and I enjoy it.”
The affection Staley has for South Carolina softball began long before the team played in it’s palace known as Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field.
“I remember when we were at our old stadium,” softball head coach Beverly Smith said. “Our fans were ground level and we had a bottom of the seventh walk-off win. We were going through the line high-fiving fans and Dawn came through the line and was so excited. She really took to our team early and our friendship has just developed from there.”
The friendship between Staley and Smith began when Smith moved into Staley’s neighborhood. They began going for walks, trusting in each other for advice, venting and watching each other’s pets when the other is on the road.
Their bond has been seen all over the country. Last season, Staley flew to Missouri for the SEC Tournament and then traveled to Tempe for the Super Regional at Arizona State. During the 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball Selection Show on ESPN, Staley was asked if Champ, her Havenese pup, would make the trip with her.
“He’s got to be at softball. He’s got a job to do,” she laughed in response. “Last year, he was undefeated when came to softball games at home. He’s got to get on his job, we’ve dropped a few (this year).”
Champ has become a mainstay around the softball facility. He is the emotional support that allows the team to calm down and forget about the grind just for a moment. Not only because Smith is his sitter, but it’s because of Champ that the coaches and programs have grown closer.
“She dropped Champ off here one day and we were in a circle getting ready to start practice,” Smith said. “I put Dawn on the spot. I told her I was just talking about energy with our team and she said, ‘Funny you said that, I was just talking to my team about that.’”
Anytime Smith has the opportunity to put her colleague on the spot, she does. And without hesitation, Staley obliges.
“She does a good job of knowing my players’ names and I think they feel a neat connection to her,” Smith said. “There’s no doubt that she shines a great light on our program. It’s very genuine. If she isn’t out recruiting, she’s going to be at our games.”
Just as the sky opened up and the rain fell harder, the tarp was brought out and both teams were called off the field but Staley stayed in the stadium. She stood with Champ on the main concourse where they could stay dry until there was a verdict on whether the game would continue or not. It eventually was cancelled and the series ended in a 1-1 split.
“There’s so much exposure and it’s very similar to basketball,” Staley said. “You had to carve out time at some point during the day to watch it but now you’re exposed to it so much that you get to follow your team when they are home and away. It’s a prevalent sport, people are watching, people are supporting and people want to be a part of a movement.”
The Gamecocks (24-8, 2-6) begin a three-game series at LSU on Friday night at 7 p.m. They haven’t won a series in Baton Rogue since 1997.
Meanwhile, the women’s basketball team tips off Saturday afternoon in Greensboro at 2 p.m. against overall No. 1-seed Baylor.
“I think once we get more consistent hitting the ball, you’ll see our win-loss record moving in a favorable direction,” Staley said about the softball program before switching gears to basketball. “I feel good, our team… it wasn’t a rebuilding year, it was just a different year. We had different personnel doing different things. I’m glad we were able to reach this Sweet 16 because a lot of people didn’t know. There was a lot of question marks heading into the season and for us to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament is quite fitting for our group.”
Regardless of what happens this weekend, Staley and Smith will reconvene next week, discuss the weekend and continue to solve the world’s problems one neighborhood walk at a time.