STILLWATER — Softball offers a world of firsts for the Clemson program.
On Thursday, the 10th-seeded Tigers will play in their first-ever NCAA Super Regional, taking on seventh-seeded Oklahoma State at Cowgirl Stadium in a best-of-3 series beginning Thursday.
Last weekend, Clemson advanced by winning its first-ever NCAA Regional — also the first regional it ever hosted — by defeating North Carolina-Wilmington, Auburn and Louisiana.
For a program that hadn’t played a competitive game until the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Clemson softball has seen a meteoric rise to get to this point, where it is now one of 16 teams left in the postseason, vying for a spot at the Women’s College World Series.
Here’s a look at Clemson softball:
MoreU, Oklahoma State dumped college softball's ride-your-ace philosophy. Good thing they did. Clemson freshman pitcher Valerie Cagle has a 16-8 record with a 1.96 ERA over 153 2/3 innings pitched this season. No. 10 Clemson Tigers
Record: 42-15 (14-10 ACC)
NCAA Tournament history: Second appearance, first Super Regional
Leading hitter: Sophomore McKenzie Clark leads the team in batting average (.333), doubles (13), on-base percentage (.427) and slugging percentage (.626).
Leading pitcher: Sophomore Valerie Cagle was named the ACC Player of the Year last season and has been strong this year as well, with a 16-8 record and 1.96 ERA through 31 appearances.
Series history vs. OSU: First meeting
A whole new world
Athletic leaders at Clemson decided they would terminate the school’s women’s diving program following the 2017 season, and at that time, they chose to add softball.
In November of 2017, John Rittman was hired as the head coach, and he immediately began recruiting — even though the timeline for the program to begin competing was the spring of 2020.
Rittman had a stellar 18-year run at Stanford in which the Cardinal made the NCAA Tournament 16 times. He also spent 10 years on the coaching staff for Team USA. He was serving as the associate head coach at Kansas when he was hired at Clemson.
In case Rittman needs another reason to dislike his opponent this week, he doesn’t have to leave his house. His wife, Lorie Fausett Rittman, played softball at OU from 1986-89.
Rittman signed seven players who began classes at Clemson in August of 2018, two of whom are still with the program.
Several more players signed in 2019, and the team first took the field in February of 2020, only to have the season wiped out by COVID in March.
But it didn’t slow the development of the program, which won the ACC regular-season championship in 2021 and earned its first host berth for an NCAA Regional this year.
It’s virtually impossible to build a program so quickly without a star at the center.
For Clemson, that is sophomore Valerie Cagle. She was named ACC Player of the Year last season and continues to anchor the pitching staff and batting order.
Over the last two years, Cagle has been the team’s most reliable pitcher on a strong staff, while also doing damage with the bat.
This season, she’s batting .299 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs. As a pitcher, opponents are batting just .218 against her and she has struck out 172 batters over 153 ? innings pitched.
More:How Morgan Day became a critical piece to Oklahoma State softball's postseason puzzle Dangerous in the circle
Clemson has a team batting average of .274, which ranks 124th nationally, though the power numbers are a little more substantial with 65 home runs in 56 games, ranking 38th.
Still, the Tigers are most dangerous with their pitching, which has a staff ERA of 1.81, ranking seventh nationally. In addition to Cagle, they rely heavily on Millie Thompson, who has a 1.61 ERA over 108 ? innings pitched.
Clemson didn’t allow a run in its three NCAA Regional wins last week and has given up two or fewer runs in eight of its last 10 games.