One sign of how far coach Shelley Smith has brought the South Carolina women’s soccer program came Monday afternoon when NCAA tournament bids were announced.
There was no raucous cheering among the players assembled at the Carolina Ale House in the Vista when USC’s name popped up during ESPNU’s selection show — a much different scene than a year ago.
In fact, there was slight disappointment among the Gamecocks that they didn’t secure one of the 16 home-field berths in the 64-team field, although they understood a pair of 1-0 losses to Florida, in the regular-season finale and the SEC tournament championship game, played a role in that.
Instead, USC (14-5-4), which is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAAs, will travel to the Charlottesville, Va., Regional to take on Southern Conference champion UNC Greensboro (19-1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Klöckner Stadium. The winner will play either host Virginia (13-4-2) or Lehigh (11-4-4) at 2 p.m. Sunday
“We’re not hosting, which kind of stinks a little bit, but we’re still in it. We’re ready for another game. We’re not done yet,” said USC senior forward Brooke Jacobs, who has played in the tournament all four years. ”
A year ago, the Gamecocks won the first two NCAA games in program history with victories over Davidson and Rutgers before they fell to Wake Forest on a buzzer-beating goal in the quarterfinals.
Smith believes those games produced a battle-tested team heading into this year’s tournament.
“At this point, you’re going to face top-quality teams, and we’ve got to be ready,” she said. “We’ve got to play our best game like we did last year. We’ve been good on the road all year, so we’re not afraid of going away to play.”
Smith is glad her team will be rested after a grueling SEC tournament in Orange Beach, Ala., where the Gamecocks won each of their first two games on penalty kicks. A fatigued USC squad then gamely fought No. 1 seed Florida before falling on an own goal.
“That’s how soccer works. Sometimes it just doesn’t fall your way,” said All-SEC senior defender Brittiny Rhoades, another four-time participant in the NCAA tournament.
She recognizes the strides the program has made over that period.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of,” Rhoades said. “I know everyone on our side of the bracket is going, ‘That’s someone to look out for.’ It fills my heart to know I’m a part of something like that.”
If the Gamecocks defeat UNC Greensboro, they likely would face a Virginia team that is one of the 16 national seeds playing on its home field. Large home crowds last season at Stone Stadium helped propel the Gamecocks to their NCAA tournament run.
But after back-to-back seasons during which they’ve achieved one first after another, junior forward Kayla Grimsley, the SEC offensive player of the year, likes her team’s chances.
“We’re confident because we’ve had such a good season,” Grimsley said. “We’re confident in the way we’ve been performing in the postseason. Playing away is a lot different than playing at home, obviously, but we’re confident in our ability to win games.”