South Carolina's road to the final four in women's soccer will go through the Atlantic Coast Conference.
If the Gamecocks are to make it to the College Cup in College Station, Texas, they must first defeat Wake Forest on Friday at Stone Stadium and then the winner of the UNC-Maryland game next weekend.
"We have a lot of respect for the ACC," USC senior midfielder Lindsay Small said. "They bring a lot of good soccer to the table. When people think of women's soccer, they think of UNC and the ACC."
The ACC has seven teams in the round of 16 - Wake Forest, UNC, Maryland, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College. USC (19-3-2) remains the only SEC team out of the six that made the 64-team field still playing.
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"I'm kind of surprised Florida lost. Our conference has been so strong," USC sophomore defender Ellen Fahey said. "I know the ACC has always been a really strong conference, and I'm really excited to go up against these good, hard teams and get the challenge of playing them."
USC coach Shelley Smith believes the Gamecocks can compete with any team. A No. 2 national seed, USC set a school record for victories, including its first wins in NCAA play.
"It's a new year. We can play with any team on a given day," Smith said. "We don't take it as an ACC thing. We look at it as more of our next challenge. We just have to make sure to play as hard and well as we can."
In USC's bracket, UNC (19-3-1) is the No. 1 seed, Wake is No. 3 and Maryland (14-5-2) is No. 4. One person who has seen all four teams is Clemson coach Hershey Strosberg, whose Tigers lost 5-0 to USC and 3-0 to Wake, North Carolina and Maryland.
"This year in particular, across the board, the ACC was about the quality of the competition," Strosberg said. "It's both the greatest as well as the biggest challenge. It's incredibly unforgiving. When you play so many strong teams, you get punished for your mistakes."
He is certain South Carolina's game against Wake Forest will be evenly matched.
"South Carolina is a team that plays with a lot of confidence. They're a good team, a well-coached team," he said. "It'll be an interesting side of the bracket."
He called both teams "well-organized with strong personality players." And he believes the game will be decided on whose personalities emerge strongest.
Wake's top players are senior forwards Jill Hutchinson, who has 14 goals, and Kaley Fountain, who has 10 goals and 10 assists. Offensively, USC counters with sophomore forward Kayla Grimsley, who has 13 goals, and a defense led by All-American senior defender Blakely Mattern and junior goalkeeper Mollie Patton, who has posted a school-record 15 shutouts.
ESPN.com soccer writer Graham Hays calls it the must-see game of the tournament's third round: "From contrasting styles to plentiful individual talent and a proxy fight for conference respect, Wake Forest visiting South Carolina is a do-it-yourself kit for drama."
Smith understands the task ahead for her team.
"We know Wake's a great team," Smith said. "To be a top team in the ACC, you know they're strong."
But the players are not daunted in any way.
"I'm sure we're thinking it's going to be hard, but we just have to stick to what we've been doing. It doesn't matter who we play," sophomore midfielder Kortney Rhoades said. "If we can make it to the final four, it'll just be another great feat we've done. We've already made history at this school."