When Taylor Leach headed the ball into the back of the net off a corner kick with less than 90 seconds remaining for a 2-1 double-overtime victory against Florida on the road last Friday night, the South Carolina women’s soccer team served official notice that it’s back in business for an SEC title and NCAA tournament berth.
The win against the then-No. 8 Gators paved the way for Sunday’s 1-0 overtime win against Tennessee on the road, capping arguably the best weekend in the program’s history.
Not only did the Gamecocks (11-1-1) become the first school in SEC history to win consecutive games in Gainesville after defeating the Gators two seasons ago, they also became the first team in program history to defeat two top-10 opponents in a season after defeating then-No. 7 Duke in August.
“It’s the will to win,” said Leach, a junior defender. “Going into these overtimes, I have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to finish it — not even come out with a tie but come out with a win.”
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That will hasn’t gone unnoticed by soccer analysts nationally, as USC jumped to No. 13 in this week’s National Soccer Coaches Association of America Top 25. The Gamecocks, who play Alabama on Friday night at Stone Stadium, also sport a No. 8 RPI thanks to their difficult schedule.
This team is beginning to resemble the ones from 2007-11 that went 75-30-13 — winning an SEC tournament title in 2009 and regular-season title in 2011 — on the way to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. But after last season’s 7-10-4 mark, the team entered this campaign with some questions. The wins against Florida and Tennessee helped answer them.
“It showed the heart and determination of this group,” USC coach Shelley Smith said. “The players have built upon their experiences from last year to this year. They want to win, and they’ve gone in with confidence from our (undefeated) nonconference play, which prepared them well for the conference season.”
After a 7-0-1 start, USC began conference play with a 2-0 loss to Georgia. But four consecutive wins have vaulted the Gamecocks into a three-way tie for second behind LSU. Senior midfielder Elizabeth Sinclair called the big wins over the weekend indicative of the team’s reenergized mindset.
“It’s just the mentality. Last year, we’d go into overtime and it would almost be like, ‘Gosh, I’m so nervous,’ ” Sinclair said. “This year, we’re not losing. The accepted truth is that we don’t go into overtime and lose. We’ve run all summer and into preseason, so we’re fit.”
The Gamecocks also stay competitive because of standout defensive play, having allowed five goals in 13 games with nine shutouts. Goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo is one of the nation’s best, while Sinclair and Stevi Parker control the midfield and Leach and Andie Romness anchor the back line.
“When we go into games, we know we can beat anybody, even when things don’t go our way. Going down a goal or facing adversity, the girls just don’t give up,” Smith said. “Defensively, we’ve really stayed together. We know we’ll get that goal, that chance, and we’ve limited other teams. That’s helped us win games.”
Although the Gamecocks have scored just 18 goals, they’ve made them count. Led by sophomore Raina Johnson’s five goals and senior Danielle Au’s four, as well as freshman Chelsea Drennan’s six assists, they have moved the ball better on the attacking end.
“We are defensive-minded, but we have an all-new attack,” Sinclair said. “Freshmen have come in and helped us a lot. I think the difference is people came prepared and ready to play with the desire to win. That changed everything.”
Leach, who won SEC defender of the week honors for her play marking the top scorers for Florida and Tennessee, believes the team can ride its hot play toward a conference championship.
“The first thing is to win the SEC,” Leach said. “Right now we’ve put ourselves in a good spot, as long as we come out every day and continue to work like we’ve been. I don’t see any reason why we can’t.”