Editor's note: This article appears in the October issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine and has been updated with current records. To subscribe, visit here.
Thirty-four minutes into South Carolina’s NCAA Tournament opening-round victory over UNC Greensboro last season, Elexa Bahr beat a defender on the right side of the 18-yard box and, with her non-dominant left foot, sent a shot into the bottom left corner of the net.
It was vintage Bahr — a goal created with speed, creativity and ferocity.
But it was more than just a goal.
One of South Carolina’s leading offensive threats who was second of the team in points as a sophomore in 2017, Bahr hadn’t scored a goal in team’s previous 11 games. Exuberant, the energized forward wrapped herself in a bearhug with teammate Sutton Jones.
“I’m me again,” she thought to herself.
Bahr continued to be herself this year and was a catalyst behind South Carolina’s 13-1-3 regular season. Now a senior, she leads the Gamecocks in points (19), goals (six) and assists (five).
South Carolina won its SEC Tournament opener over Georgia on Tuesday and plays Vanderbilt (14-4-1, 6-3-1 SEC) — a team it tied 0-0 at home on Oct. 13. — on Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. (SEC Network) in Orange Beach, Ala. The winner advances to the Nov. 10 championship match at 2 p.m.
“She has been our most consistent and dangerous attacker,” Gamecock head coach Shelley Smith said in early October. “We’ve kept her on the field quite a bit just because she’s been versatile up top. … She’s produced. When she’s in the game she’s set up other players and run off the ball well. She’s also done work to set the press for us.
“As a senior she’s using the experiences she’s had to be able to lead up there.”
In just the first three games of the season Bahr equaled her goal total (three) and eclipsed her point total (seven) from last season.
The production has been a welcomed rejuvenation for the Buford, Ga. product.
Bahr started all 23 of South Carolina’s games during its 2017 Final Four season alongside program legend Savannah McCaskill and tied for first on the team with eight goals. That includes four game-winners, three of which came against ranked opponents. She scored a goal in the 80th minute against No. 17 Florida that secured South Carolina’s SEC regular-season title and scored the decisive goal in the team’s 1-0 victory over No. 4 Clemson.
But those numbers were sliced in 2018.
Bahr strained a muscle in her right foot the summer before the season — an injury that took a month and a half to recover. She made just 13 starts in the 19 matches she appeared and finished the season with just seven points (three goals, one assist).
As the streak of games without a point spiraled, Bahr admits she got a bit down on herself and wondered if she’d ever be the same.
“It was very frustrating, and I think missing a couple of games and not playing as much as I wanted to [all factored in]. And coming back from an injury, it’s hard on anybody,” she said. “I think what also really got me is that, ‘Ah, this is my junior year, I need to do good too because I did good last year.’ I think I didn’t trust the process as much as I needed to.”
Smith mentioned those factors, as well as the obvious one that defenses keyed in on Bahr with McCaskill lost to graduation. Goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski mentioned how 2018 was “a little bit of a rebuilding” year and that, with an almost entirely new midfield, the team’s offense as a whole did not create as many chances as it did in 2017.
But Bahr did not come to Columbia to be a non-factor.
She came to be the best soccer play she could be.
“How bad do I want it?” Bahr asked herself. “Am I willing to put in the effort to get healthy?”
The answer to the second question was yes.
Over the summer, Bahr played with the semipro team Peachtree MOBA FC in Atlanta, something she did after her freshman season that propelled the stellar sophomore campaign. It helped her stay fit and, because she played with some players she had never played with before, diversified her skillset.
She also had time to fully recover from the foot injury and had a full preseason of training and working with her teammates.
“She had a fitness about her that was better,” Smith said. “She was that much more explosive. And that allowed her to free herself from players. And her work rate, to get the ball back if she lost it or to make a great pass instead of a good pass, it’s those little things that were better.
“That work is paying off. She’s seeing goals because of it.”
Bahr calls it a “shark” mentality — something she learned from McCaskill. She wants to be a player opposing teams know they have to mark in the box.
“It’s my senior year. Where do I want to go from here?” Bahr said. “Do I want to continue playing? And if I do, this is what I have to do.
“I have to be a shark.”
“Last year she had a solid start and that’s kind of when it went downhill,” Krzeczowski said. “But I don’t see that happening this year. She has continued to work hard.”
South Carolina coaches have also moved Bahr from an outside wing position to striker in front of wings Ryan Gareis (who Bahr called “one of the fastest players in the SEC”) and Luciana Zullo (who Bahr called one of the team’s fastest players and someone who can break down defenders).
“And I’m able to hold up the ball, link play, kind of be a playmaker,” Bahr said.
“Everything’s falling into place for her,” Krzeczowski said.
Both Krzeczowski, who has been Bahr’s roommate the past three years, and Smith mentioned Bahr’s dogged work ethic.
“Her speed, her explosiveness and her strength overall, she’s not the biggest kid out there, but she’s as strong as anybody, in the weight room and on the field,” Smith said. “She’s not getting pushed off the ball. She’s exploding by players.
“It’s hard to score goals and I think she’s showing she’s capable. Not everyone can do that.”
“I’ve [still] got it,” Bahr said. “Of course it took me a long time to get back, but hey, that’s how it is sometimes.”
In a 10-minute conversation with Spurs & Feathers in early October, Bahr kept coming back to the theme of how hungry she, and South Carolina as a team, are. She said losing to Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament left a sour taste in the team’s mouth.
“We have a lot of potential,” Bahr said. “We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve, so never get too comfortable. With this team, and I guess you can say me too, we’re so much more driven than before. Some of us know what the Final Four feels like and we want to get past that. We already know what an SEC ring feels like. We want another one.
“I want to finish with a bang. This is my senior year. Why not go to the Final Four again? Why not win a national championship?”