Mollie Patton is easy to spot on the soccer field. Of course, with the prominence of the position she plays, most goalkeepers are.
But there's something extra about the USC keeper that makes her stand out even more.
Patton's headgear protects her after a pair of severe concussions - the first sustained in her junior year in high school and the second in her freshman year at USC - sidelined the redshirt junior's collegiate career for an additional season.
Since her return in 2008, the helmet hasn't slowed her from putting together two of the best seasons for goalkeepers in USC's 15-year history.
This season, she broke the USC record for shutouts with 13 and posted a 0.54 goal-against average while leading the Gamecocks to the first round of the NCAA Regional tonight against Davidson.
She has come to accept the helmet as part of her standard uniform, something that wasn't easy when she began wearing it in games a year ago. For her, it wasn't exactly a high-fashion look.
"I had a major problem with it," Patton said. "We went through so many trial runs. We joked about putting ribbons on it."
But the self-consciousness is long gone.
"Now I don't even think about it," said Patton, who hopes to serve as a role model so younger players won't be embarrassed about the need to wear a helmet.
Collisions are part of the game. Defender Brittiny Rhoades and midfielder Lindsay Small also wear protective headgear that looks like headbands after they were hit hard around their foreheads in games this season. Patton jokes that all three are part of the helmet club even though their headgear isn't as obtrusive as hers.
"Having the helmet is security for me. I don't play timid," she said. "I've gotten hit a few times, but I escaped without problems. It's made me a better player to be able to overcome it."
Patton, an exercise science major who is going to do her graduate work in pharmacy, understands the helmet will limit the risks to her long-term health.
USC coach Shelley Smith has watched Patton develop since the concussion in the spring of her freshman season, an incident that caused her to have an on-field seizure.
Smith had never dealt with something like that as a coach.
"It was pretty scary," she said.
Patton didn't play in 2007 as she recovered from post-concussion syndrome, and the additional year off from the game action allowed her to work on physical training.
Patton's return in 2008 saw her post seven shutouts, which tied a school record at the time, and a 0.97 goals-against average as the Gamecocks went 11-7-4 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to William & Mary.
What Patton accomplished this season, which began with her putting up seven consecutive shutouts, helped propel the Gamecocks to a 17-3-2 record and an SEC tournament title.
"She came back and played with much more confidence," said Smith. "She reads the game better. She is very much a reaction keeper. There's been no hesitation on her part."
The 5-foot-7 Patton, a Milford, Ohio, native, shares the credit for her shutouts with USC defenders Blakely Mattern, Samantha Diaz-Matosas, Brittiny Rhoades and Ellen Fahey.
"It wouldn't be possible if I didn't have the defense in front of me," Patton said. "Team defense is one of our major strengths."
Diaz-Matosas called Patton the defensive anchor that allows the back line to play more freely.
"It's been amazing to see her come back and regain her confidence," Diaz-Matosas said. "Having Mollie is awesome. I've never second-guessed her. We all have confidence in her. We know if we make a mistake that she's going to be there."
Patton's decision to come to Columbia from the Cincinnati area four years ago has paid off the way she dreamed it would.
"When I came here, I just knew it was what I wanted. I loved the place, and I loved the team," she said. "We've slowly come together as a unit, and every position has found a way to work together. Everyone's goal is an NCAA championship. We really believe we can win."
Smith understands how important it is to have a strong goalkeeper in order to compete with the nation's top teams. The helmeted Patton fills that role.
"It feels good to have someone with that experience," Smith said. "She's come up big all year in key situations."