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USC's Mattern helps build a foundation

Blakely Mattern has led South Carolina’s women’s soccer team to a No. 11 national ranking.
Blakely Mattern has led South Carolina’s women’s soccer team to a No. 11 national ranking.

Blakely Mattern came to South Carolina to help build the women's soccer program into a perennial SEC and NCAA contender.

With each game, the senior defender has helped make that a reality, culminating with this season's best-ever 9-0 start.

The Gamecocks have made three consecutive appearances in the SEC Tournament and two in a row to the NCAA tournament, both program firsts, and Mattern has served as the catalyst.

"We've come a long way in four years," said Mattern, a J.L. Mann High graduate.

A three-time All-SEC performer, Mattern again has raised her level of play as a center back leading a defense that has allowed two goals all season.

"She made an impact the minute she first stepped on the back line," USC coach Shelley Smith said. "And she has continued to get better and better."

Mattern credits her success more to smarts and desire than to pure skill.

"I'm a consistent player. I'm not fast, I'm not flashy, and I'm not a technical player," she said. "But I stay pretty calm. On the ball and off the ball, I try to make sure the team is under control and not panicking, not overreacting."

Smith chuckles at Mattern's own scouting report.

"Technically, she's very good," Smith said. "She isn't the fastest player, but she makes up for that by the way she reads the game. She positions herself so well. That's the sign of a good central defender."

She also is tough. Earlier this week, Mattern was on crutches after getting a cortisone shot in her foot for plantar fasciitis, an inflammatory condition that affects the bottom of the foot. It has not kept her from going all out on the pitch.

Mattern's play has set the tone for the team's start, which has seen it move up in the polls - No. 11 by Soccer America, No. 12 by the coaches, and No. 13 by Soccer Times.

But Smith does not want to get caught up in the hoopla with the SEC schedule in front of the Gamecocks, who play host to Kentucky at 1:30 today at Stone Stadium. And she is not ready to look ahead at another NCAA bid either.

"We're excited to be ranked," Smith said. "We want to stay there. But we have to continue to do the dirty work every day to stay at that level. We want to prove we belong there."

Neither Smith nor Mattern are surprised by the success, given that the Gamecocks lost only one senior from last season.

"Having everyone back - we know each other on the field and off the field - has helped our chemistry dramatically," Mattern said.

Smith calls the depth crucial to making a run in the SEC, especially with a schedule that sees teams play matches on Friday and Sunday.

"In the past two years we've been close," she said. "In the SEC there's so much parity. Any team can win. But we've put ourselves in a position to win a championship."

Mattern is not USC's only top-flight player. Sophomore forward Kayla Grimsley leads the team with seven goals. Seniors Kim Miller (two goals, six assists) and Lindsay Small (two goals, one assist) have done an exceptional job of controlling play in the midfield. And senior defender Samantha Diaz-Matosas and junior goalkeeper Mollie Patton have helped Mattern lock down the opposing attacks.

Mattern can score, too. She has tied her single-season best of four goals this year, which gives her 13 on her career. Using her 5-foot-9 frame, she has a knack for headers off corner kicks or free kicks in front of the net.

"I have a scrappiness around the goal," she said. "I'm not very finessed, but I can find the ball up around the goal. I love getting forward on set pieces. We work on those every day in practice. We take a lot of pride in them."

Smith calls her aerial play special in the women's game. But then, Mattern has displayed special qualities for a long time.

Andrew Hyslop, the co-executive director of the Greenville-based Carolina Elite Soccer Academy and her club coach for five years, spotted it when she was competing against boys in middle school.

"It's difficult for a kid to go to college and play for four years, much less excel for four years," said Hyslop, a native of Scotland. "She had the desire to get up every day and do all the things you need to do to be successful. She had all the intangibles to be a great college player. She's got the drive, ambition and ability."

But it is not simply her soccer skills to which her teammates respond. Personable and outgoing, Mattern is well-liked off the field. A strong student with a 3.986 GPA in international business, she calls herself a person who loves all types of outdoor activities.

Although she is not certain what she will do after her USC career is over, she knows it will be something that keeps her around people. For someone who is like a coach on the field, she has not ruled out coaching.

"It's such a critical time in everyone's life, and I've learned how important (soccer) is to me," she said.

In return, Smith has learned how important Mattern is to her. She could not find a more coachable player or more accomplished individual.

"She is just one of the best role models you can find, academically and athletically," Smith said. "The standards she sets are very high. She finds a way to succeed on and off the field."

That success should lead to more All-SEC honors this season as well as potential All-American recognition. Not that Mattern breaks a sweat over that.

"If the individual stuff comes along, great," she said. "But I'll be happy at the end of the year if we have an SEC championship."