USC soccer revels in '09 accomplishments

Team reached new heights with SEC title, deep run in NCAA tournament

nwhite@thestate.comNovember 25, 2009 

Blakely Mattern's review of her senior season leaves her shaking her head with a smile four days after USC's dramatic playoff run came to a halt.

A school-record 19 wins.

A first-ever SEC tournament championship.

A trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women's soccer tournament.

"I've soaked it all in, and when I look back, it's just incredible what we accomplished," said Mattern, who came to be the face of the program during the course of four All-SEC seasons. "If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that this is what would unfold, I wouldn't have believed it."

The Gamecocks' season couldn't be marred even by a last-second 1-0 loss to Wake Forest in the third round of the playoffs. The Deacons scored off a corner kick as time expired to keep the match from going into overtime and stop USC from reaching the round of eight.

Coach Shelley Smith admitted she still is recovering from the sting of that loss, but she also understands what her team did in its championship season, which was capped by its third consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.

"We've worked so hard to get here," said Smith, who is 100-66-24 in her nine seasons at the school. "We've gained a lot of respect the last couple of years, and we're going to do our best to keep it. That will be the mindset going into next year. Our goal will always be to compete for championships."

Smith, who hit the recruiting trail immediately after the loss, knows she must continue to bring in players like the group of seniors that just finished their careers. The play of Mattern, who scored seven goals and dominated on the defensive side from her center back position, and her fellow seniors spurred the program to the most prolific era in its 15-year history.

The senior class leaves as the winningest one, having compiled a 55-23-14 record, capped by the school-best 19-4-2 mark this season. Five senior starters - Mattern, midfielders Kim Miller (team-high 11 assists) and Lindsay Small (four goals, three assists), and forward/defenders Samantha Diaz-Matosas (four goals, five assists) and Shannon Bigbie - led the charge to the trio of NCAA appearances.

"Our class is going out on top and with a bang. That's something I'm really proud of," said Mattern, a Simpsonville native. "Knowing I'm leaving the program like this is a really good feeling."

Other players also had remarkable seasons. Junior goalkeeper Mollie Patton set a single-season record with 15 shutouts while posting a 0.52 goals-against average. Sophomore forward Kayla Grimsley scored 13 goals to go with seven assists as she rapidly climbs USC's career scoring charts. Junior forward Brooke Jacobs scored six goals, including two in the playoffs. The 2009 team scored the second-most goals in school history (48) and allowed the fewest (14) while winning its first-ever games in the postseason.

Mattern called the SEC title the pinnacle for her - the Gamecocks toppled perennial powers Georgia, Florida and LSU as the program stepped to the top of the conference ladder for the first time.

Maybe as importantly, the team galvanized the local soccer community. In the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, USC drew the largest two-day total of any regional site in the nation with 6,537 fans. And in the loss to Wake Forest, the Gamecocks set a new women's single-game school record with 4,347 fans.

"That means more to me than anything," Mattern said. "We were able to bring respect to this program and recognition and awareness. That's something extremely special in itself. To put a spotlight on women's soccer for a little bit of time is so cool."

Smith has seen the program's outreach efforts come to fruition. And the team's remarkable run helped pull it all together.

"It's amazing now that I look back on how special this team was and how much fun we had."

Reach White at (803) 771-8643.

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