‘Freshies’ set the standard at South Carolina. ‘Birdies’ waiting in the wings to shine

Dawn Staley believes the legacy of South Carolina’s 2019 recruiting class — nicknamed “The Freshies” — should be immortalized in Columbia.

The Gamecocks have a combined 128-8 record with its five four-year seniors — Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson — and have amassed four SEC regular-season championships, two conference tournament championships and a national championship.

“They’re deserving of something, of us really celebrating them and what they’ve meant to our program,” Staley said.

South Carolina (35-0) faces Maryland (28-6) on Monday night the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, three wins away from back-to-back national championships.

When the time comes for The Freshies to depart, South Carolina’s other No. 1 recruiting class is ready to step up.

“We call each other ‘The Birdies,’ ” redshirt freshman Raven Johnson said.

Johnson, Sania Feagin and Bree Hall were members of South Carolina’s 2021 recruiting class, the second-, fourth- and 13th-ranked players in the country, respectively. Saniya Rivers was part of the class but transferred after one season.

Johnson recalled meeting Feagin in high school at a basketball camp in Georgia — where they are from — and meeting Hall for Team USA activities. Feagin and Hall met separately at other camps.

Hall and Feagin liked Johnson’s style when they saw her play, and they cultivated a natural chemistry with each other. The trio talked about the possibility of playing college basketball at the same school and formed a bond before coming to South Carolina.

“We just really went to try to build a connection right then and there, see how we would play together,” Hall said about playing with her future classmates. “It was really fun. We got a lot closer.”

‘The friendly group’

The Birdies arrived on campus after South Carolina’s Final Four loss to Stanford in 2021. USC had already lost a postseason opportunity the year before due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

South Carolina had five seniors and five juniors on the team when the Birdies came in last season, all of whom had the experience of playing under Staley’s standards and expectations.

“We joke about it all the time: They have it easy,” Amihere said. “I feel like we came in, we set the tone. We do things right, and they just kind of just followed suit.”

The 2021 class is noted for their energy among the team — whether it’s their production off the bench or in their interactions with teammates.

“We’re probably the friendly group,” Feagin said.

Johnson, Feagin and Hall are learning what they can from the current senior class, seeking out their wisdom and advice.

The Birdies came in ready to contribute and to build on what the Freshies helped establish at South Carolina. And the Class of 2019 made sure to acclimate them.

“Their leadership is really there,” Hall said. “They’ve been really talking to us, they’ve been communicating on the floor. On and off the court, they’re always there to answer questions. And just their mentality. They’re very, very focused.”

From 2021, South Carolina Gamecocks players Bree Hall, Sania Feagin and Aliyah Boston interact with fans during the Gamecock Basketball Madness on Main Street in downtown Columbia.
From 2021, South Carolina Gamecocks players Bree Hall, Sania Feagin and Aliyah Boston interact with fans during the Gamecock Basketball Madness on Main Street in downtown Columbia.

Birdies starting to fly

A big difference between the Freshies and the Birdies is that three freshmen from the 2019 class — Boston, Cooke and Beal — started every game in the 2019-20 season.

Johnson was limited to two games in her true freshman year due to a knee injury, and Hall and Feagin didn’t see much playing time as the team was in pursuit of a national championship, which it won in 2022.

But everyone in the group has seen their minutes increase this season while becoming reliable contributors off the bench.

Johnson leads the team in assists and has shown much activity on defense. Hall has been able to help the team stretch the floor on occasion with her 3-point shot, and has led the team in scoring in two games this season. Feagin has been one of South Carolina’s more efficient scorers, leading the team in points scored per 40 minutes.

Along the way, South Carolina’s veterans have shown them the ropes with the knowledge that they’ll see bigger roles next season.

“No matter what, stay level-headed,” Feagin said. “It’s a mindset. So stay ready, no matter when our numbers are called.”

The Birdies’ attention to detail has begun to pay off for South Carolina. Their improvements from their freshman seasons helped contribute to USC’s increased depth, and it’s a reason the Gamecocks are still undefeated and alive in the NCAA Tournament.

Carrying on the legacy

The Gamecocks will get even younger in 2024, bringing in Milaysia Fulwiley, Sahnya Jah and Tessa Johnson. In preparation for next year, Raven Johnson, Hall and Feagin have started to use their voices more often on the team.

“They’re stepping into more of that leadership role as they get older,” Thompson said. “But when they were younger, always asking questions, always being attentive in practice. It’s a really good sign of a good basketball player.”

The Freshies have established themselves as one of the most accomplished recruiting classes in the history of the sport. They joined the Gamecocks in a transitional period and helped turn them into the most dominant team of the past four years.

The Birdies have a shot to add to that success before taking over next season.

“We just got to give it our all for them because they show us every day what leaders are, what it takes to get to this level,” Johnson said.

South Carolina built big leads in many of its games this year, affording opportunities for the younger players to play in the fourth quarter.

And those late-game minutes serve as a glimpse into USC’s immediate future.

“We’re on the bench and we’re watching like, ‘That’s our team next year,’ and we just laugh about it,” Amihere said. “They’re doing great. Coach puts them in a position where they’re able to mesh together. And it’s gonna be amazing to watch them next year.”