Shelley Smith became the head coach of South Carolina in 2001. A lot has changed since then, but one thing has remained constant.
The Gamecocks and Florida, often jockeying for SEC supremacy, play one another often in big games. And they are always close.
Since 2001, South Carolina and Florida have played 24 times. Of the two dozen, 16 have been one goal games (not including the tie), including six overtime games (including the tie), with five of those needing double overtime.
SEC reign once again comes down to the rivals this season. No. 8 South Carolina (12-1-2, 6-0-2 SEC) will face the No. 20 Gators (10-6-0, 6-2-0 SEC) on Sunday at 3 p.m. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. with crucial conference positioning on the table.
The Gamecocks can clinch the SEC East crown and a top-two seed in the SEC Tournament with a win. A Florida win would see the Gators reclaim the top spot in the east with one game to play.
“We’ve set ourselves to go into Florida and play for a championship,” Smith said Thursday. “We’re trying to win the east, we’re trying to win the overall, and it’s a big, big game. It seems to come down to Florida and us all the time.
“It makes it even that more intriguing when you face them at the end of the season. That’s what we’ve had for several years, and we need to be ready because they are excellent. They’re at home.
“But we’ve gone in there and won championships there before.”
Florida has gotten the better of the Gamecocks over the last 18 years (14-9-1), but South Carolina has won six of the eight matchups since 2013. Six of the games have been in either the SEC or NCAA Tournament, including a 1-0 Gator win for the SEC crown in 2010 and a 2-0 Gamecock win in 2017 that sent the Garnet and Black to its first ever College Cup.
There have been eight goals scored past the 80th minute that have been game winners. Two of those have been in the 109th minute or later, including a 2015 goal by Florida scored with one second left and a South Carolina goal with 84 seconds left to steal a game in Gainesville in 2013.
South Carolina has won three of the last four games in Gainesville.
If South Carolina can leave Gainesville with at least a draw, they would be one game away from going unbeaten in the SEC for the third time in four years.
The Gamecocks, who are coming off a 2-0 win over Ole Miss on Thursday, will face a Gator team that was on the wrong side of a 1-0 upset against Tennessee on Thursday.
“They’re going to be fired up and ready for [the match],” Gamecock defender Grace Fisk said. “For us, [Florida’s loss] doesn’t change much. Whether they won or lost, we still have to go in and win.”
Thursday was not all great for South Carolina. Right back Tatumn Milazzo left in the first half due to what appeared to be a right knee injury and did not return. Milazzo was on crutches after the game. She did not travel with the team to Gainesville, and the team still has no update on her status going forward.
The Florida offense has been hit or miss this season. It has scored three or more goals seven times this year but has been held to one goal or fewer six times. The Florida offense will look to test the depleted Gamecock backline.
Defensively, South Carolina has been one of the best in the country. It has allowed just six goals on the season, three in conference play, for a goals against average of 0.388 on the season, which ranks them eighth nationally.
While Florida might not be having its best season, South Carolina senior goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski knows the Gamecocks can’t look past the Gators.
“We definitely have to prepare,” Krzeczowski said. “Sunday games are always tough in the SEC. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. We’re definitely going to go in there with the right mind set. Like an elimination round, survive and advance.
“We definitely want that title, and we’re going to fight for it.”