A few years ago, a senior soccer standout such as USC's Blakely Mattern would have finished the 12 credit hours remaining to earn her degree in international business during the spring semester.
But with launch of the Women's Professional Soccer a year ago, Mattern hopes to spend this spring on the field instead of a classroom.
Next week she will be in Philadelphia hoping to hear her name called in the WPS draft, which is taking place in conjunction with the National Soccer Coaches Association convention, where Mattern will be honored at a luncheon as an All-American.
The seven-round draft will see 65 players picked on Jan. 15.
Following a season when she led USC to its first-ever SEC tournament title and NCAA tournament victories, Mattern could not ask for much more.
"It's a dream come true to continue playing the sport you love," Mattern said. "The timing couldn't be more perfect for me. I had one of my best seasons and so did the team. I couldn't ask for a better opportunity. I hope a team gives me a chance. It's a really exciting time."
That chance is likely to come. Soccer analysts expect her to be chosen in the draft. ESPN.com has her ranked as the third-best defender of college seniors entering the draft, while The Soccer Magazine and womensprosoccer.com both have her listed as one of the Top 10 defenders nationally.
Last month Mattern worked out for the Atlanta Beat in a pre-draft camp with about 50 players. The Beat have shown expressed interest in drafting her, and she also has received contact from first-year WPS champion Sky Blue FC (N.J.), the Boston Breakers, the Washington Freedom, and the Chicago Red Stars.
USC associate head coach Jamie Smith has spoken with most of the clubs in recommending Mattern, and he expects her to go anywhere between rounds two and seven. He is convinced Mattern has the ability to make a roster.
"She's someone who is ultra-competitive. She'll raise herself into whatever level she's inserted," Smith said. "She may not be a starter right away in the league, but if I wanted someone on my team pushing my starters, she would be the one. She'll compete and do just as well as the kids drafted ahead of her."
The idea of staying in the South sounds good to Mattern, but the Simpsonville native is not about to get picky over where she plays.
"Atlanta would be pretty cool if I got to play that close to home, but I don't have a preference where I go. The chance to play on any team would be pretty awesome," said Mattern, who set a career record at USC by playing in 92 matches.
Teams play 20 games before the playoffs in a season that will run from mid-April to early September. Last season the teams collectively averaged about 4,600 fans per game playing in smaller venues, although several teams shared stadiums with MLS clubs, and the league continues to cultivate big sponsors like Puma.
"The general feeling is that we laid the framework to build a long-lasting league," said Robert Penner, spokesperson for the San-Francisco-based WPS. "We set out to be the best soccer league and we accomplished that."
Each team carries 18 players on the regular roster with four developmental players. Five of those roster slots can be used for international stars such as Brazil's Marta (Los Angeles) and England's Kelly Smith (Boston), while each team also gets three U.S. national team players. The league, which has an average salary of $32,000 for players, quickly attracted some of the world's top talent.
The college seniors in this year's draft will have to battle for the remaining roster spots with other returning players.
"This gives these great college players something to shoot for," Penner said.
The 5-foot-9 Mattern, who finished her career with 16 goals and 38 points while spearheading USC's defense at center back, is not sure where she fits into the mix, but she's ready to keep playing.
"There are so many good players across the country," said Mattern, who will work out with a Greenville-based trainer as she prepares for the season. "I'd love to be drafted as high as possible, but whether I'm drafted in the first round or the seventh round, it doesn't matter. I just want a chance to earn a spot on a team. To be able to stay here and have be able to play in the States is so cool."
Smith is certain of one thing.
"She won't disappoint whoever drafts her," he said.
A two-time Academic All-American with a GPA a sliver under 4.0, Mattern remains committed, however, to completing her USC degree one day.
"I will come back and finish my degree as soon as I can. That's really important to me."