Six matches into the season, the South Carolina men’s soccer team appeared headed for its second straight season without any hope of reaching the NCAA tournament.
Three consecutive losses had dropped the Gamecocks’ to 2-4. An injury to their starting goalkeeper during that stretch made things worse.
The players weren’t ready to give up on their postseason dreams.
With one loss in its past 11 matches, USC, which plays its regular-season finale at home at 7 p.m. Saturday against Old Dominion, has served notice that it plans on extending the season as long as it can. A 5-1-5 mark over that period, including wins over highly-ranked opponents New Mexico and UAB, have vaulted the Gamecocks (7-5-5) into third place in the Conference USA standings at 4-1-3.
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A win over Old Dominion (9-4-1, 6-2 C-USA) would push USC into second place in the conference heading into next week’s C-USA tournament in Charlotte.
“All the credit goes to our guys. It took us a little while to get things figured out,” USC coach Mark Berson said. “They never looked back.
“It’s not always easy to work your way through a season where you don’t have a glittering record in the beginning. Every game was important. These guys are mentally tough, they’re physically tough, they’ve played in eight overtime games.”
Berson, who has 451 victories in 36 seasons as USC’s only head soccer coach, became the fourth coach in NCAA Division I history to win 450 games at the same school. He has led teams to postseason play 20 times.
“The effort in every game has been great, but maybe we weren’t as focused and weren’t completely together at the beginning of the season,” junior Braeden Troyer said. “These last 11 games, we’ve come together. We’re very focused and determined to win. (Wins over New Mexico and UAB) definitely gave us a lot of confidence. We’ve been playing great.”
Freshman goalkeeper Marco Velez stepped into the net after sophomore Robert Beebe went down with a hip injury in the fourth match of the season. Velez has a 1.05 goals-against-average.
Fellow freshmen Koty Millard and Ive Burnett have helped anchor the back line. Defender Mo Kaba leads the team with five goals.
Midfielders J.P. Rafferty, Stephen Anderson, Jeffrey Torda and Kurtis Turner have made a big impact as the team has rallied from the tough start, which also included a foot injury that knocked out midfielder Ryan Arambula the past six games.
“This is a team. We don’t have a big scorer. Defensively, we’re very sound,” Berson said.
“The players have bought into our system, and they go out and execute it. This is a really gritty, hard-working group.”
Rafferty is one of five seniors who will be honored Saturday as part of a group that claimed the 2011 C-USA regular-season and 2010 conference tournaments titles, along with a pair of NCAA tournament appearances in those seasons.
“Lately, we’ve been coming together as a team, which has helped us be successful,” Rafferty said. “We’ve proven that we can beat those top teams, and I know that everyone in that locker room feels like we can beat everybody we play every time we step on the field.
“Those wins have definitely given us the confidence that we can achieve big things.”
Berson figures his team needs three more wins to clinch an NCAA tournament bid.
Winning the C-USA tourney would make the Gamecocks an automatic qualifier, but if they fall short, they’ll sit on the bubble on selection day, especially with a current RPI of No. 65.
Rafferty’s hopes are high for a strong stretch run.
“There’s nothing better than this time of year and that feeling of going into postseason play,” Rafferty said. “We want our young guys to experience that and feel what it’s like to be in the NCAA tournament. The vibe is really positive right now.”