The South Carolina men’s soccer team knew it was headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years after winning the Conference USA tournament in Memphis over the weekend.
But the Gamecocks got a pleasant surprise when the brackets popped up on TV Monday — the No. 7 national seed, which comes with a first-round bye and a home game. Gamecocks coach Mark Berson said his team proved something nationally with consecutive wins against UAB, No. 5 SMU and No. 25 Tulsa to claim the automatic bid.
“They’re really deserving of this seed,” Berson said. “To be the No. 7 seed in the country is a huge mark of respect for this team. They’ve earned it.”
The Gamecocks (12-6-2) will not play until Sunday in a 2 p.m. game at Stone Stadium against the winner of Thursday’s match in Durham, N.C., between Big South champion Coastal Carolina (12-7-2) and ACC at-large Duke (9-5-4).
Berson, who is taking USC to the NCAA tournament for the 19th time in his 33 seasons at the school, likes that his team will have home-field advantage potentially for two rounds. But he also understands there are no guarantees.
“We’ve been in the tournament many times, and it’s a one-shot deal,” he said. “You just hope we can put together the type of performance in the tournament that we did this weekend in the conference tournament and the conference championship.”
After not making the NCAA tournament the past five seasons, Berson — 429-174-58 in his USC career — credited a group of players that refused to give up, even after three key early season-ending injuries.
“It’s a tough game sometimes. Our guys persevered,” Berson said. “They worked really, really hard to get us back, and I’m really happy for our seniors.”
The seven seniors also are delighted, including forward Blake Brettschneider, the Conference USA Co-MVP and Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
“It means a lot, especially for our senior class,” said Brettschneider, who leads the team with seven goals and nine assists. “We’ve been here four years and haven’t been to an NCAA tournament yet. Words almost can’t describe it.”
Jimmy Maurer, a four-year starter at goalkeeper and a second-team all-conference pick, enjoyed watching the announcement with his team at the Carolina Ale House in the Vista.
“Four years of work right there,” said Maurer, who has eight shutouts in his 20 starts. “It’s amazing to see a seven seed on the board. We definitely didn’t anticipate that.”
Brettschneider does anticipate USC carrying over the momentum from the league tournament.
“Three wins in a row, regardless of who you’re playing, is great. But against top-50 RPI teams, (it) is awesome,” he said. “And to get a championship on top of it is great. Hopefully, we can carry that over to this Sunday against whomever we face. We’ll feel confident whether we play Coastal or Duke.”
The Gamecocks lost junior midfielder Vance Benson, sophomore midfielder Eric Martinez and senior forward Mike Lindsay to season-ending injuries. Then senior defender Evan O’Dell missed the C-USA tournament with a concussion. But various players stepped up, including Kevin Stam, who filled in for O’Dell and won all-tournament honors.
Senior defender Will Traynor, who has six goals, made the all-conference first team while Bradlee Baladez and Chipper Root made the all-freshman team.
“It just goes to show what our team is made of,” Brettschneider said. “We’re very resilient, mentally tough, able to rebound and make do with what we have.”
Maurer called it a combination of hard work and depth, and the team isn’t afraid to play from behind either after rallied against UAB and SMU showed.
“We have great team chemistry that maybe we’ve been missing the past years,” Maurer said. “We just get along so great. Everyone is always joking around. We love being together. It really makes it fun to be around.”
Now they can’t wait to keep having fun in the postseason.