South Carolina women’s soccer team has not lost since August, a stretch of 13 games in which the Gamecocks have dominated SEC play and rocketed to the No. 3 ranking in the country.
But talk to the Gamecocks before their regular season finale against Florida on Thursday, and something becomes clear — their most recent result, a 1-1 tie against Georgia, is being treated as basically the same thing as a defeat.
Talk a little more, and another thing becomes apparent — losing isn’t always a bad thing.
Gamecocks coach Shelley Smith characterized her team’s draw with Georgia, the last-place team in the SEC, as a “letdown” after USC took a 1-0 lead before halftime, only to surrender a last-minute goal off a corner kick to give the Bulldogs their first non-loss in conference play.
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Against Georgia, “we got a little bit away from (our usual style of play), taking care of the ball, finding people’s feet, playing open players,” Smith said. “We tried to play a bit long sometimes when we had another option, we had another pass and we settled for a long shot — just little things that we’ve done all year, and we’re better than that.”
Before the Georgia game, South Carolina had won 12 games in a row, conceding just three goals and posting nine shutouts, moving into the national top 20 in goals against average and shutout percentage. The Gamecocks remain the favorites to win their second straight SEC regular season title, their first conference tournament title since 2009 and potentially even make the College Cup, soccer’s Final Four, for the first time in program history.
Yet the Georgia game, as well as the team’s only other non-win on the schedule this year, a 3-2 loss at Wake Forest on Aug. 24, have marked crucial points in USC’s season, Smith said.
“When you have a little bump in the road, that’s where you can really propel yourself from,” Smith said. So that’s what this team has done all year and has done a good job and that’s what we expect from this group on Thursday,” when South Carolina faces Florida.
Senior striker Savannah McCaskill, the team’s leading scorer and reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, agreed with her coach’s assessment.
“After the tie against Georgia, we kinda had to reset ourselves and get back to what we do and focus on ourselves again,” McCaskill said. “It was a good wake-up call at a good time.”
Specifically, McCaskill and Smith said the loss and the tie taught the team about the importance of little details and closing out matches strong. In both games, USC surrendered a first-half lead.
Lessons like that can be valuable for a team as young as the Gamecocks — seven of the 16 players to take the field in at least 10 matches are freshmen. Still, Smith called the group the best first-year class in her 17 years at South Carolina.
If the Gamecocks lose against the Gators, they can still claim a share of the SEC regular season championship if second-place Texas A&M ties against Mississippi State. If A&M loses, the Gamecocks have sole ownership of first place regardless of their result. If South Carolina ties, they need the Aggies to lose or tie. But at the end of the day, McCaskill says, the team isn’t looking for another tie to treat as a loss.
“I know for sure that we win (against Florida) and we win the championship, so that’s what we’re focusing on,” she said. “We just want to go in and take care of business.”