South Carolina is full of stars up and down its lineup, whether it’s inaugural SEC Goalkeeper of the Year Mikayla Krzeczowski, three-time SEC Defender of the Year Grace Fisk, England national team member Anna Patten or two-time All-SEC second team member Lauren Chang.
Perhaps the most unsung star is defensive midfielder Jyllissa Harris, who this season quietly earned her second All-SEC honor in as many seasons.
“J-Y is easy to talk about,” Gamecock head coach Shelley Smith said earlier this week. “She’s been tremendous for us. I kind of joke with her a lot about, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t take you off the field.’ She’s become very valuable.”
Harris will once again by key when No. 2 seed South Carolina (18-1-3) takes on Kansas (17-4-3,) in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Stone Stadium (SEC Network +).
Though she has just two goals, both came in crucial moments of the team’s season.
Her first, on Sept. 26 against Alabama, tied the score a 2-2 just before halftime after South Carolina trailed 2-0 just 23 minutes into regulation. The Gamecocks came back and won 5-2 that day in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
She topped that though with arguably the most important goal to the team’s regular season. Three days later against then No. 13 Arkansas she scored in the 78th minute to give the Gamecocks a lead for good in its 1-0 victory.
But the 5-8 Harris’s role has been more defensive for South Carolina.
Occasionally, Smith decides to play five on the back line and has Harris drop in to play center back alongside Fisk and Patten and play. Harris first slid into that role during the win over Arkansas in late September when Patten suffered a bit from dehydration.
“We know what we can get out of her in the backline,” Smith said after that game. “It wasn’t an issue at all to put her back there. We have complete confidence so, making that change was simple.”
The first time Harris played a center back role with both Fisk and Patten was in a 0-0 draw against Vanderbilt in mid-October. Harris blocked a shot that would have been the deciding goal.
“It’s really easy to play center back when you have Grace and Anna standing right next to you,” Harris said. “They’re really great communicators and they really help me out.
“Going back into the center back [position] for that role, is tough for me. It’s hard to communicate that way for me. But you do what you got to do for the team.”
That defense has led to a resurgent offense.
South Carolina's 41 goals this season is the most since 2016 (51) and the third time in five years they have reached at least 40 goals as a team.
Despite being labeled a defensive midfielder, Harris plays a key role in the attack. She is the transition between the defense and the attack, working in combination with offensive minded midfielders like Lauren Chang and Sam Chang and forward Elexa Bahr.
“I think it’s really important to link up with J-Y,” Bahr said prior to the team’s 1-0 win over Notre Dame. “She has a strong foot and she’s very helpful for us in our attack. Getting balls out wide from her, even getting crosses from her from deep is really strong. I think a lot of teams underestimate how strong of a foot she has.”
That strong foot plays another key role in the Gamecocks’ attack. Harris is now the team’s primary free-kick taker and has created numerous opportunities on set pieces. She also comes forward to provide height in the 18-yard box on corner kicks.
“I think especially from our left side of the field free kicks is a big thing for me,” Harris said. “Being able to whip it into the far post. And I think offensively on corners we’re a good threat. The three of us, (Fisk and Patten) with how tall we are, are going in there to win headers.”