THE PROGRAM Shelley Smith inherited in 2001 had problems. It was tough attracting top recruits to South Carolina because women’s soccer competed in the SEC, in the shadow of the mighty ACC, where North Carolina dominated the national scene and Clemson owned the state.
Because she played and coached in the Northeast, Smith came to USC with few connections in the region, and no track record with high school coaches in recruiting. The USC facilities were adequate, but Smith avoided at all costs ushering recruits to her cramped and dilapidated office in the old Rex Enright Athletic Center.
Thirteen years later, Smith operates from a sparkling new office and has her 17-3-2 team prepared for Friday’s second round of the NCAA tournament, USC’s sixth appearance in the past seven seasons. The Gamecocks are the premier program in the state and have developed a national reputation as a top-level program.
“Their season speaks volumes about the team that they are,” said former U.S. Olympic team player and current pro Brandi Chastain recently. “They were ranked in the top 10 for a lot of the season, and that doesn’t happen by accident or because you want it. It happens because you’ve earned it.”
Smith’s program has arrived to lofty status not overnight, but rather through what has been a long and tireless journey that has included adept recruiting and a program-changing win seven years ago.
“You try to build a reputation, so people get to know you and know what your program is about,” Smith said. “The more you are in it, and the more success you have, the easier it is to convince people that we’re not building anymore. We’re doing a good job. We’re still building toward a national championship, but we’re at the point where the best players can have a great experience here.”
In six seasons as USC’s first women’s soccer coach, Sue Kelly took the Gamecocks to one NCAA tournament but posted a losing record (55-57-5). Through Smith’s first five seasons, it was more of the same. Those teams were 45-43-10 and appeared to be making little headway even in the SEC, where women’s soccer struggles to gain national recognition.
Then in 2005, Smith signed Blakely Mattern, a somewhat overlooked defender out of J.L. Mann High in Simpsonville. Mattern developed into the SEC defensive player of the year as a sophomore. She was a four-time all-SEC performer and, eventually, an All-American.
Mattern’s signing helped Smith turn the corner in recruiting, then a 1-0 victory against No. 1-ranked and defending national champion North Carolina to open the 2007 season — when Mattern was a sophomore — proved to be a head-turner nationally.
“That was a huge victory,” Smith said. “We had pieces in place that we never had before, not just Blakely. The class just ahead of her had some really solid players. Then Blakely’s class had a drive to be better and prove themselves.”
The win against UNC, which has won 21 of the 31 national championships since the NCAA recognized women’s soccer, caught the eye of high school players around the country.
That fall, USC fought off Florida, Tennessee and others to land Kayla Grimsley, a talented forward out of Lakeland, Fla.
“To beat those programs for a kid like her, that was just another step,” Smith said. “She was a goal-scorer, and when you have a goal-scorer in your program, it’s a big difference.”
Grimsley left USC following the 2011 season as the program’s all-time points leader with 119. She was a four-time all-SEC performer, two-time SEC offensive player of the year and an All-American. Beyond that, she spearheaded USC’s 61-24-10 record in her career that included an SEC regular-season championship and four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
USC was on the map nationally.
“It takes awhile for a program to establish itself in terms of national recognition,” said Mattern, who recently completed a professional season in Sweden. “But I think we are definitely there now. ... It’s consistently in the top 20-25, if not top 15, in the country year-in and year-out. We’re finally getting that recognition, and it’s really cool to see it as a top program in the country.”
Now, when Smith and her assistant, Libby Bassett, attend an Elite Club National League tournament to scout top prospects, as they did this past weekend in Arizona, they are recognized by club team coaches.
One coach approached the two Saturday and said he was hearing all about “Carolina” and its program. It was a statement to Smith that another “Carolina” now exists on the national women’s college soccer landscape.