Less than nine months ago, South Carolina women’s soccer advanced to its first College Cup, the Final Four of NCAA soccer, the highlight of a sterling season that included an SEC regular-season championship.
Now, the Gamecocks are set to return to the pitch at Stone Stadium, kicking off their 2018 season Saturday with an exhibition match against South Florida. And while on one hand, USC has to replace a huge group of veteran leaders from last year, the team also knows there’s no turning back.
“Every year we try to raise the bar, and reaching the Final Four, breaking records, making program history is huge,” junior goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski said. “That’ll be the new standard every year to follow.”
Carolina is putting pressure on itself, and the rest of college soccer is doing the same — the coaches preseason poll, released Tuesday, has the Gamecocks as the No. 5 team in the country, ahead of every other SEC school.
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All of this is despite how when play begins Saturday, coach Shelley Smith said, she will be fielding a “brand new team” when compared to last season — and even from later this year.
“We’re very young, huge group of new faces. They’re definitely willing to work hard, and we’re very excited about the future. We have some growing pains to go through,” Smith said. “ ... That’s the problem, that not just a lot of starters who left were seniors, but we also have the returning players who are not here or injured.”
The most glaring, and permanent, hole was left by star striker Savannah McCaskill, an All-American who has graduated and already played several games for the U.S. National Team. But beyond her, the Gamecocks are missing captain Grace Fisk, a junior defender currently playing in the U20 World Cup for England, and injured junior forward Elexa Bahr, last season’s second-leading scorer behind McCaskill, among others.
All told, only four of the 11 starters from last year’s College Cup will be available in Saturday’s opener, and as a result, Smith has had to rely on underclassmen not only to play, but to lead as well.
“We’ve got several strong returners, they may not be upperclassmen. They’re young players, but they have leadership capabilities,” Smith said. “People have got to step up.”
The lone senior on the team, forward Simone Wark, missed all of 2017, including the run through the tournament, with injury. Now that she’s back, she believes she can offer a unique perspective.
“I was able to retain a lot of information last year — you can actually learn a lot just from watching, observing and having that whole season to just take in everything that was going on around me, technically, tactically,” Wark said.
And beyond just the experience of making it as far as the Final Four, which Smith said will provide the Gamecocks with invaluable confidence, the Gamecock coaching staff will also try to recreate, at least in part, the 2017 team’s identity as a possession-dominant squad with a top-10 defense.
The defense returns the most experience, Smith said, and both Fisk and Krzeczowski are expected to be among the nation’s best at their respective positions. In the midfield, however, USC is young, and that may require some tactical tweaks.
“We’re continuing to work into being a good possession-style team. We move the ball quickly, we want our midfield on the ball,” Smith said. “We’re not yet as clean as we were last year with the younger players. We’re going to probably have to be a little more direct at times.”
Those changes may be temporary, though, just as almost everything seems to be for South Carolina at the moment, Smith said.
“Trying to find a starting lineup is going to be the most difficult that we’ve ever had. It’s very competitive, but we’re going to need a learning curve. So, as those young players learn to be put in situations against top opponents, that’s the only way we’re going to get better,” Smith said. “So, the team we are to start this season is not the team we’ll be at the end of the season, and we have to remember that through every game.”
SOUTH CAROLINA WOMEN’S SOCCER
Who: USC vs. South Florida (exhibition)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stone Stadium