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Rival Florida stands between South Carolina and its first ever College Cup

South Carolina's Savannah McCaskill (7) drives down the pitch for a goal during an earlier game against LSU at Stone Stadium.
South Carolina's Savannah McCaskill (7) drives down the pitch for a goal during an earlier game against LSU at Stone Stadium. tdominick@thestate.com

On the verge of the College Cup — again — South Carolina women’s soccer team finds itself in a familiar place heading into its NCAA quarterfinal match with Florida on Friday.

This is the third time in four years the Gamecocks (18-2-1) have reached the fourth round of the national championship, just one win away from punching their ticket to the Final Four.

And for the second time this season, USC will be facing the Gators (17-6-0) with a prize on the line. On Oct. 26, South Carolina traveled to Gainesville and beat Florida to clinch its second consecutive SEC regular season title.

Now, they’ll square off at Stone Stadium. Florida hasn’t been to the College Cup in 16 years, and South Carolina has never made it. But if the Gamecocks want to go, they can’t think too much about the bigger picture, according to senior and SEC Offensive Player of the Year Savannah McCaskill.

“We went down to Florida and knew an SEC championship was on the line, and the whole team did a great job of focusing on the task at hand,” McCaskill said Tuesday. “And we’re going to have to do that again Friday and just not think about the Final Four, but think about what our jobs are in that moment and doing our best.”

“I think there was a lot of pressure on us to go to Florida ... to go there and get a win, that’s a lot of pressure on these players, and they handled it so well,” South Carolina coach Shelley Smith said.

Given that 1-0 win over Florida in October, the casual observer might think Friday’s match should be a relief for South Carolina because it is facing a team it knows it can beat. But Smith said she has warned her players about the difficulty of beating the same team twice in one season, and she knows they won’t be sneaking up on the Gators.

“But at the same time, I’m actually pretty excited to have a Florida team back and excited for them, excited for our conference,” Smith said. “What an exciting time for the SEC. The SEC has put themselves at the top of the nation and will be in the Final Four. ... I have a lot of respect for Florida, and we played them and we know we can advance if we do our jobs.”

Both teams have scored five goals this postseason while playing at home every game. For the Elite Eight, however, the Gamecocks will have the advantage of a defense that has yet to surrender a goal in the tournament and a home field where they have not lost all season.

“Our record at home has been outstanding over the past few years. .... I just know that at home, it’s a special place,” Smith said. “And our fans have been tremendous. Hopefully they’re in town, getting ready to cheer on some football on Saturday and can warm up on Friday night by coming out to Stone Stadium.”

On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski has recorded 13 shutouts this season, tied for fifth most in the nation.

And at the end of the day, Smith and McCaskill said, the pressure on this team to finally break through is somewhat tempered by the enthusiasm and determination 14 freshmen bring.

“That’s kinda been the theme of this year, just find a way to win, find a way to come back. Never put your head down, never stop, no matter what the score is, no matter how much time is left, always keep fighting and find a way to win,” McCaskill said.

NCAA tournament

Who: South Carolina (18-2-1) vs. Florida (17-6-0)

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Where: Stone Stadium

At stake: A trip to the NCAA semifinals in Orlando