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Anderson Independent-Mail (South Carolina)
The Clemson athletic department's announcement of adding varsity softball as early as 2020 was met with a common response: finally.
"I don't want to say 'It's about time,' but truly it is," said former Pendleton High School and current Anderson University softball coach Tommy Hewitt. "With the ACC and our area, it's going to be a huge boost for softball.
"I wish it was sooner, but 2020 is better than not adding it at all."
The idea of a Clemson softball team is nothing new. Proposals stretch back as far as former Tigers athletic director Bobby Robinson's tenure (1985-2002).
Former longtime Clemson administrator Bill D'Andrea said softball was in the conversation when the school started its rowing program in 1998.
"As much softball as is played in this state, I think Clemson can be very, very successful by adding that sport," said D'Andrea, the current Anderson University athletic director.
For Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, it's one less query he has to field now.
"Since I arrived at Clemson in late 2012, the most common question I've received from our fans, supporters and young women throughout the state has been, 'Are you going to add softball?'" Radakovich said, "and I'm happy to now have a definitive answer."
A change in the college sports atmosphere helped clear a path for softball at Clemson, and what's next for the program is plenty of planning before the finished product.
An ESPN-sponsored linear ACC Network is certainly a big factor.
The Clemson softball target date of February 2020 is line with the first season ACC softball will air on a conference television network, and that was noted as much in the university's statement announcing softball as a substitute for women's diving.
The sport's addition started gaining traction in the last 18-24 months while the school was evaluating all of its sports in light of the television deal, said Clemson associate athletic director Joe Galbraith.
Last August in an interview with the Independent-Mail, Radakovich said a move for softball wasn't "imminent."
The intersection of economics and championships played a role.
Women's diving has competed on its own since the 2011-12 season, when Clemson ended its men's diving and both men's and women's swimming programs. Keeping women's diving aligned the school with federal Title IX regulations that spell out required balance between men's and women's sports offerings, but since swimming and diving are scored together, an ACC championship was out of the picture.
Adding women's swimming again was considered, per a university statement, but ruled out for "financial, facility, participation and geographic considerations."
Clemson enters a competitive conference for softball, which boosts to 13 teams thanks to the Tigers and the addition of Duke in 2018. Florida State has won 14 ACC championships since 1992, but Virginia Tech did grab back-to-back titles in its third and fourth ACC campaigns.
One area softball coach says building a program will be a challenge, and she hopes the right resources will be afforded.
"I believe ... that this is a money-ACC network-driven decision," said Wren softball coach Lynn Hicks, "and not that they really want to put the effort or funds in the sport ... I am truly a Tiger fan and hope they are doing this for the right reason. It will be tough and bringing in transfers, and (junior college) players will be key in early going.
"I hope our area players are given the chance."
Clemson's first task is finding a stadium site and working the proper channels for approvals and fundraising when that's established.
The athletic department has a panel set up to decide on the location, which Galbraith said is currently being considered among about a half-dozen locations.
Football-game parking - or the elimination of it - is a consideration, but how the stadium impacts student traffic and its relation to other athletic facilities play a role as well.
From there, Clemson will determine the timing in hiring a coach and support staff, which will largely rely on the recruiting calendar.
Up Interstate 85, another ACC program is about three years ahead of Clemson's road.
Duke associate athletic director Todd Mesibov said finding the right location for a softball stadium was a "pretty involved" process, while finding the right coach made a significant difference.
The Blue Devils announced their softball program in December 2013 but didn't hire former Michigan standout Marissa Young as coach until July 2015.
"One of the things we really talked about to candidates for the job is that we wanted that person to really be able to come in and build his or her program," Mesibov said. "She's been in the process of building it all from scratch and has done a great job. For us, that was the best thing we've done, being able to have her come and drive the train."
Duke's softball stadium construction started in May 2016 and will be completed later this summer.
Less than a year out from first pitch, Duke has a roster of six freshmen plus a sophomore transfer and will have a full team by the fall semester.
Mesibov says seeing the stadium construction has been a rewarding sign of the work put in, which Clemson is just starting.
"We had a number of Duke softball shirts - that and some drawings were sort of the only tangible evidence that we were really going to do this," Mesibov said. "To be able to walk through the construction with (players) now and the actual building and - 'This is where the cage is going to be' and 'This is where home plate is going to be' - has really been a great joy to see them come alive with the excitement."
Follow Brandon Rink on Twitter @BRink_AIM.
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