For the third time in four seasons, South Carolina (13-1-3, 7-0-3 SEC) finished its SEC slate unbeaten. But because of the three draws and some quirks in how standings are determined, the team enters the SEC Tournament as the No. 3 seed.
But not finishing in first, despite being unbeaten, may prove beneficial. Not bringing home the regular season championship has given the team extra motivation as it heads down to Orange Beach, Ala.
No. 8 South Carolina begins tournament play Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. against Georgia (8-6-4, 4-3-3), a team it beat 3-0 on Sept. 20 to open conference play.
“It’s disappointing that we haven’t got any [hardware] yet,” Gamecock defender Grace Fisk said. “Considering our record, beating the team who came [in] first, but I think going into the tournament that can only be a positive for us, and fire us [up]. To go on and win something because you know we want to have something to show from this season not just a good record.
“We’re really excited for the tournament and want to do well and show what we’re made of.”
Fisk was one of six Gamecocks to be recognized by the SEC for an outstanding regular season. Fisk won SEC Co-Defender of the Year while fellow senior Mikayla Krzeczowski won the inaugural Goalkeeper of the Year award. Juniors Anna Patten (center back), Lauren Chang (midfielder) and Jyllissa Harris (defensive midfield) all made the All-SEC second team.
Redshirt freshman Samantha Chang earned All-Freshman honors for her play in the midfield despite coming off the bench in many matches.
Lauren Chang scored twice against the Bulldogs in the team’s first meeting this season, while sophomore Riley Tanner scored the other.
“We’re glad to have beaten an opponent and ready to take them on again,” Gamecock head coach Shelley Smith said. “We know how hard it is to beat an opponent again and it’s just difficult, but we know what worked well last time. We’re a different team now than when we faced Georgia in the beginning and so are they.
“They’ve shown they’re a much stronger side through their SEC play all season. They’ve come off some big wins and, most notable, is the one against Florida recently. So we have to be ready and not take them lightly and the fact that we beat them doesn’t really matter.”
The fact that many teams have already seen each other is what makes the tournament difficult, and despite being one of the best teams in the conference, the Garnet and Black have not been to the SEC Tournament championship game since 2010.
“Everything’s kind of back-to-back-to-back. It’s a little harder to prepare because you don’t know who you’re playing next until they win their game and vice versa, so it’s just a little quicker rotation,” Krzeczowski said. “And making sure like players that played a lot of minutes get more recovery. Utilizing your time wisely and just surviving and advancing.”
Depth is what can set this Gamecock team apart from the others in the tournament.
South Carolina has scored just under two goals per game, but it has 14 different goal scorers this season, led by senior forward Elexa Bahr who has six. Samantha Chang has a goal and three assists this season and Smith wants to continue to see her freshman contribute.
The Gamecocks will likely host at least a game in the NCAA Tournament. The question is if there will be a second or third.
A strong showing in the SEC Tournament will likely push South Carolina up to a No. 2 seed and be in line to host up until the Elite Eight.
But the Gamecocks have preached a one game at a time mentality.
That begins Tuesday against Georgia.