Kayla Grimsley came to the University of South Carolina to become an SEC champion. The sophomore from Lakeland, Fla., did it more quickly than she imagined.
The USC women's soccer team captured its first SEC tournament title by sweeping Georgia, Florida and LSU over the weekend in Orange Beach, Ala. After avenging their three regular-season losses, the Gamecocks will host an NCAA regional this weekend.
The Gamecocks will play host to Davidson at 7 p.m. Friday at Stone Stadium.
Although they earned an NCAA bid the past two seasons - exiting both times after narrow losses in the first round - this team is poised to make the same kind of run nationally that it did in the SEC.
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Getting top-notch players such as Grimsley has helped the Gamecocks (17-3-2) climb to the top rung of the conference ladder. Grimsley has scored a team-high 11 goals to go with six assists, earning her recognition as a unanimous first-team All-SEC performer.
USC coach Shelley Smith said Grimsley has had much the same impact on the offense that senior defender Blakely Mattern, a three-time All-SEC first-teamer, had on the defensive side years ago.
"Getting Kayla to complement Blakely on defense was huge," Smith said. "She's probably the most gifted player we've had talent-wise. Having her as an offensive threat is the difference for us."
When Grimsley saw the talent and chemistry USC had at the start of this season, she became a believer. Outspoken and confident, she challenged her teammates to make a championship their goal.
"I said, 'We can do this.' I asked, 'Do you guys want this?' They said, 'We want this.' And I said, 'Then nothing can stop us if we want it bad enough,'" she said.
That will is what makes her so good on the field, too. She points to her work ethic as her best attribute, and she knows only one speed.
"The passion I have for this game doesn't allow me to give up or put my head down," she said.
Although 5-foot-4, she stands head and shoulders above many of her peers when it comes to making big plays.
"I've been told my entire life, 'You're too short for this; you're too short for that,'" she said. "That has fueled my fire."
Her message to taller defenders?
"I will jump over you to get that ball."
Smith, who is in her ninth season at USC, said Grimsley sees no limitations.
"The nice thing about soccer is you don't have to be tall. You can dominate in your own way," she said. "We saw we could bring that out in her. When she uses the strengths she has, she overcomes her height."
Grimsley has a knack for getting past defenders, whether she has to go through or around them. By using her creative ball skills or sheer toughness, she finds a way.
"I don't get scared when I'm dribbling the ball and see two, three, four players," she said. "Some players don't like that. I love it. I see the holes and the runs I can make that other players don't see."
Watching the high-energy Grimsley attack can be a memorable experience. Smith recalls a flashy goal against Clemson early this season in a 5-0 rout.
"That's the kind of skill she has," Smith said. "She can change a game just by her creativity."
Grimsley, a physical education major who sees coaching in her future, emerged as a high-impact freshman last season, when she led the team with eight goals and six assists and earned all-conference second-team honors. A top-75 national recruit and three-time high school state player of the year in Florida, she chose USC over perennial power Tennessee in large part because she wanted to join a rising program instead of an established one.
She couldn't be happier with what he calls her "incredible decision" to come to Columbia.
"I wanted to come and be a part of making history," Grimsley said. "I wanted to be a part of the team that wins the first SEC championship, that wins that first national championship. I believe we have the power to do that."