Mollie Patton understood the South Carolina women's soccer team had something to prove when it was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East preseason poll.
As the Gamecocks prepare to take on Florida Friday night to determine the division and overall league champion, the proof is in the standings.
"We surprised everyone else more than ourselves," said Patton, the junior goalkeeper who has posted 12 shutouts. "We were underestimated coming into the season."
If the Gamecocks (15-2-1 overall, 7-2-1 SEC), who are ranked No. 13 nationally, beat No. 10 Florida (13-4-2, 7-1-2), they will win the East, and combined with an LSU loss or tie, would also claim the overall SEC title.
Coaching a program that finished sixth in the East in 2005, then fifth in 2006, fourth in 2007 and third in 2008, with NCAA Tournament appearances in each of the last two seasons, Shelley Smith is looking to leapfrog one rung of the ladder.
"The way we started the season (8-0 in nonconference action), I knew we were capable of doing great things in the SEC," Smith said.
The Gamecocks have used a quick-strike offense along with a solid backline defense - accentuated by the play of Patton - to key their success.
"We don't give teams a lot of chances by jumping on them early. That's the sign of a team that's confident and ready to play," Smith said.
One time that did not happen came Sunday in a 1-0 road loss to No. 16 LSU. The Gamecocks allowed a first-minute goal and played a man down after a red card early in the second half.
"That was uncharacteristic of us," said Smith, who is in her ninth season at USC. "We didn't come out with the confidence we normally have. But it's a learning process for us. You don't let up on teams."
Florida holds a 16-1-1 edge in the series, but sophomore forward Kayla Grimsley, a Lakeland, Fla.., native who has scored a team-high 10 goals to go with five assists, cannot wait to return to her home state.
"We've battled the whole season and beat the odds. That we've put ourselves in the running to win the title is unbelievable," Grimsley said.
Beating Florida would be the truest signal of the team's ascendance. It would not only put the Gamecocks in a good position for next week's SEC Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala., but it would also prime them for a deep run into the NCAA playoffs. They have lost in the first round each of the past two seasons.
Grimsley believes they have learned how to win. Only No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 Portland have more wins this season than the Gamecocks.
"We realized this summer we had the talent. We knew we could do this," she said. "We've been working every day in practice to come out and say, 'It's our turn. We should be No. 1 in the SEC.'"