Editor's Note: This article appears in the January issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, visit here.
It poured in Columbia on the afternoon of Nov. 27, 2019 — torrential rain soaked the grass field next to South Carolina’s outdoor track and field facility — and Mikayla Krzeczowski was still outside, diving and jumping and sliding on the grass to make saves.
Her blonde hair drenched and her thighs muddied, the South Carolina women’s soccer keeper was not taking anything for granted. This was two days before her team’s Elite Eight matchup against Washington State, her final game at Stone Stadium, and the senior needed her reps.
The rain finally let up, and she moved to team workouts.
“If you don’t know what you’re going to do with the ball, don’t get it,” she yelled at teammates.
“Shoot it! Don’t pass it. Come on!”
“Don’t shoot it back across. Too easy!”
It was the full Krzeczowski Experience — a mix of passion, skill, leadership and thoughtfulness.
Though Krzeczowski and her teammates fell to the Cougars 1-0 in overtime, preventing a second NCAA Tournament Final Four trip in three seasons, the keeper finished her career as one of the most celebrated players in program history.
In four seasons, Krzeczowski played more minutes than any keeper (she never missed a game) and finished with the three best individual season goals-against averages. She shattered the South Carolina record book en route to 50 career shutouts (third-most all-time in NCAA history) and won the 2019 SEC Goalkeeper of the Year.
As a team, she led the Gamecocks to the 2017 Final Four and two Elite Eights.
“I always said she had a great defense in front of her, and I know she credits her success a lot to who she played with, but really they played at their best because of her,” Gamecock head coach Shelley Smith told Spurs & Feathers.
In a 35-minute interview with Spurs & Feathers, Krzeczowski reflected on her career.
“I’ve been able to look back on the last four years, everything my team and I accomplished, and it’s a lot,” she said. “It’s definitely overwhelming. It’s cool to see the program from where it was then to what it is now. Just the little things. Now we have a trophy case. Just the little details added to the mix, it was cool to be a part of.”
Krzeczowski etched her name in stone alongside the program’s legends and continued the celebrated lineage of keepers the team has had under head coach Shelley Smith, from Lindsay Thorstenson and Laura Armstrong to Mollie Patton and Sabrina D’Angelo.
“I never forget my freshman year, I was so nervous thinking, ‘The goalkeeper position is such a huge part of this program,’” Krzeczowski said. “At the time I didn’t feel like I was adequate enough. But I had an upperclassman tell me, ‘Hey, Sabrina was great, but don’t worry about being her. Just be you. And the rest will come.’
“I want people to look back on my four years and know I gave it everything I had,” Krzeczowski said. “My goal, and our goal as a class, was to leave the program better than we found it. I just hope my years were memorable for fans and teammates and my family. And to remember that I was a hard worker.
“I just wanted to win for this program.”
“Mikayla showed tremendous heart and competitiveness,” Smith said. “Mikayla, the team she led, had the most success [of any teams in program history].”
A GAMECOCK LEGEND
“We call ourselves goal-creatures,” South Carolina assistant coach Clark McCarthy, who trains the team’s keepers, says about players and coaches whose lives revolve around the position.
And from the moment her freshman season when she made a diving save in the 85th minute to preserve a 2-1 road victory over No. 6 Clemson, Krzeczowski was a creature out of this world.
For Lauren Chang, it was a save Krzeczowski made this past season against Tennessee. “My heart kind of sunk because I thought it was a great hit, but Mik got her fingertips on it and pushed it to the left just enough for it to hit the post and bounce out,” the midfielder said.
For Ryan Gareis, it was one of the multiple clearing punches Krzeczowski had in the 2019 SEC Tournament championship game — a win — over Arkansas.
“She made multiple saves under high pressure that helped seal the tournament title for the first time in 10 years. Arkansas was attacking as aggressively as possible, but Mik, as always, was a brick wall,” the forward said.
For three-time SEC Defender of the Year Grace Fisk, it was a diving save in the first game of this past season’s SEC Tournament when Krzeczowski tipped a ball off the post and out.
The highlight-reel saves, wins, shutouts and records are the combination of several factors.
To start, there’s a chip on Krzeczowski’s shoulder. At 5-foot-6, she has always been a bit shorter than most keepers her age. All three keepers on the U.S. women’s national team are 5-foot-9. At one of the first meetings she had with U.S. Soccer, Krzeczowski said staff asked how tall her parents were.
“I’m not the tallest out there,” Krzeczowski said before the 2018 season. “So if I sound like I’m 10-feet tall, that’s all that needs to be. I like to be aggressive. My teammates will tell you they won’t stop hearing me talk.”
“She’s extremely explosive, and I think she has to be,” D’Angelo said. “I’m in her boat, where I’m also not the tallest, so I think it’s our job to be as explosive as possible to make up the ground we don’t get with our height. I think it’s incredible she’s doing as well as she is, getting to things probably most goalkeepers wouldn’t.”
Then there’s her skillset and intellect.
Krzeczowski played midfield and forward growing up and carried that athleticism to the net. She worked on angles and positioning, which made up the difference for any disadvantage she had with her height. She was consistent and most often made the right decision whether to hold onto a ball or play it out.
She was vocal, even from a young age. Before she was a teenager, Krzeczowski’s dad Dan, a former Air Force quarterback, told her that keepers are like quarterbacks in how they control the field.
“I didn’t know what I was saying, but I was saying it,” she said with a laugh. “I remember coaches telling me that’s the one thing that stood out with me. You don’t really hear 14- and 15-year-olds screaming at their teammates. But I guess I was. I was one of the loudest ones out there and kind of turned heads.
“But I got better. It went from screaming to communicating.”
At South Carolina, if Krzeczowski wasn’t in position, most often her defense was there for her.
“She won’t say it, but I know the confidence she exudes in goal helps the entire back line,” Smith said. “She’s demanding, confident and vocal and does her job. The players around her want to help her. When you have that much confidence in a goalkeeper, it helps everyone play to the best of their abilities. It makes a difference when they have that confidence in someone behind them.”
This season Krzeczowski had to make more clutch saves than she ever had.
“Her presence and her confidence in herself,” D’Angelo said. “She’s shown that throughout her career, that when she needs to stand up and make a big save, she’s there.”
“She’s been ready when called upon,” Patton said. “I’ve seen her make some big saves, especially in the SEC championship. She’s agile off her line. And she’s a leader.”
Krzeczowski started all 89 games of her South Carolina career despite injuries to both of her shoulders. This past season especially she had multiple “smaller injuries” and — in her words — “felt old” for the first time. She couldn’t bounce back and quickly as she once did.
“Sometimes hitting the ground hard, anything from throwing, lifting and anything over my head, it can get tight, and a little painful here and there,” she said. “But nothing that could keep me out of playing.”
“She’s just a true competitor,” McCarthy said. “In practices and in games when she steps over the white line, she just kind of switches into a different mindset. It’s always really fun to watch her do her thing and compete. That makes my job easy, really.
“I don’t have to hype her up. She’s just ready. When the whistle blows, Mikayla is Mikayla.”
“When I saw her confidence, I knew we were set,” Patton said.
Krzeczowski has also remained thoughtful, honest and fun.
On that November day in the rain, between reps, she asked a reporter nearby if he had plans for Thanksgiving. After mostly every home game she answered questions from reporters. She also played the role of jokester, once wearing a sombrero during a youth soccer clinic.
“I was coaching the Mad Tacos,” she explained. “I just wanted to make the kids happy.”
A BROKEN RECORD
There’s no swearing-in ceremony or even a group text, but South Carolina keepers have an elite sisterhood.
From Thorstenson and Armstrong, the first keepers Shelley and assistant Jamie Smith brought in, to Patton and D’Angelo, the lineage has been among the nation’s best. Patton remains in the NCAA record book for single-season shutout percentage while D’Angelo still plays professionally and with the Canadian national program.
As the years progressed, Shelley Smith saw an uptick in competition for the players she was going after on the recruiting trail.
“You get to Mikayla, and now we’re competing against some of the top SEC teams and teams across the country,” Smith said.
“[Shelley and Jamie] invest in that position and believe in that position,” McCarthy said. “ … It’s obviously very important to the program. Mikayla knew that coming in, and it’s obviously been a staple and something that we work hard at.”
D’Angelo, Patton and Armstrong all pointed to the position coach they had in Columbia as a reason for their success. Before McCarthy the Gamecocks had Libby Bassett (2011-14), and before Bassett was Matt Cosgriff (2003-11).
“It’s just cool to see the support within our goalkeeper group. It’s a special bond,” Krzeczowski said. “You’ve got to be a little crazy to be a keeper, so we all have something in common.”
“To see the level continuously rise, it’s really exciting,” said Armstrong, who played professionally in Brazil, coached keepers at Liberty University and now at Myers Park (Charlotte) High School. “It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about us leaving a legacy and preparing the next goalkeeper to come in and play and take it to another level.”
“It’s keeping the legacy of South Carolina always having strong goalkeepers alive,” D’Angelo said. “Each time a new goalkeeper has come in we’ve added something to the program and helped develop it. From Mollie to me to Mikayla … I think us being able to live up to the standard has been a huge accomplishment.
“It’s putting South Carolina on the map as a top team.”
Krzeczowski was a Top Drawer Soccer top-50 recruit and one of the top handful of keepers in her class. “When I made the decision I wanted to be at South Carolina, I knew I had to make sure I was doing everything I could to fill Sabrina’s shoes,” Krzeczowski said.
And D’Angelo “loved” seeing Krzeczowski break her records.
“I messaged her and said congrats and to just keeping kicking ass,” she said. “You want that for the program. Records are meant to be broken. If she’s doing that, someday someone else is going to come and do that to her records.
“And I’m sure she’ll want that to happen, because we’re invested in South Carolina soccer.”
“I’m so proud of her and her commitment to the program and her desire to keep making it better and continue the legacy we tried to leave as goalkeepers,” Armstrong said.
THE FUTURE IN COLUMBIA
Smith said she hopes to continue the “great line” of goalkeepers. “The next person to step in will have some big shoes to fill, for sure,” the coach said.
This past season Krzeczowski mentored Hinz, a former Top Drawer Soccer All-American, on everything from demanding the box to positioning. “She’s really technical, really very consistent and knows what to do and when to do it,” Hinz said. “She always has the right answer.”
Hinz called Krzeczowski one of the best mentors she ever had.
“Even the day I came down just to see the school, she went out of her way to check on me and see how I was doing,” she said. “And over the summer she asked if I wanted to train with her whenever. She’s always been really positive and so welcoming. Without her, I don’t know what I would do.
“… It’s amazing to have her skill and drive in front of me, because it shows me what I want to be and who I want to be as a person.”
Hinz will compete with incoming freshman Taylor Fox — a four-star prospect according to Top Drawer Soccer and someone who has had U.S. U16 and U18 national team call-ups — for the starting position next year.
“I think they’re both very aware of how important the position is to this program,” Krzeczowski said. “My records are out there to break.”
When she was a young teenager, Krzeczowski realized the specialness of the goalkeeper position. “I’m the only one that can command this box,” she thought to herself.
“Everything else is kind of history,” she said.
Historical, to be more precise.
“I feel like I blinked and here I am,” Krzeczowski said. “It definitely flew by, but there were definitely days that felt longer than normal, and trips where I felt like they were never going to end. … It’s the closing of a chapter.”
And the beginning of a new one.
Krzeczowski was not taken in NWSL Draft and said going overseas for a year or two will probably be her best bet to play professionally.
“It would be so much fun to travel the world,” she said. “Whoever wants me, I’ll go, because I want to compete for whatever spot I can and just continue to play the game I love.”
“With how successful she’s been at South Carolina, it’s definitely not out of the question at all,” D’Angelo said.
“The sky’s the limit,” McCarthy said. “Whatever team gets her is getting a really good goalkeeper, a really good competitor and a good teammate.”