A historic season for South Carolina is now over. After winning the SEC Tournament for the first time in a decade, the Gamecocks ultimately fell one game short of a second College Cup in three seasons.
The No. 2 seed Gamecocks (19-2-3, 7-0-3 SEC) saw unseeded Washington State (16-6-1, 5-5-1 PAC-12) escape Stone Stadium on Friday night with the game’s lone goal in the 96th minute.
The Gamecocks now look toward next season and a defense of its SEC crown.
“I think we have always relied upon a group. … We rarely have a team of seniors on the field,” SC head coach Shelley Smith said. “I think we have always had young players contribute. You saw it again tonight. It’s important that players in your program are stepping in to fill roles that the seniors leave.
“That’s what we expect them to do.”
The Gamecocks had five seniors on its roster this season, goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski, center back Grace Fisk, outside back Sarah Eskew, midfielder Rebecca Koch and forward Elexa Bahr.
Excluding the personal milestones and accolades, Smith credits the senior class for doing what they were expected to do: leave the program better than when they arrived.
Krzeczowski, the SEC Goalkeeper of the Year who finished her career with 50 shutouts (the third-most of any keeper in NCAA history) and Fisk, a three-time SEC Defender of the Year, etched their names among the program’s all-time greats.
And their senior season is one they can look back on and remember with a smile.
The Gamecocks opened the season as the No. 15 team in the country and came from behind to win the season opener against then No. 21 NC State. The win sparked a six game win streak to open the year that featured three goals in six minutes to beat William & Mary, a 6-0 rout of Jacksonville State and a sweep of the Purdue Invitational with wins over both the Boilermakers and DePaul.
The Gamecocks soared to No. 7 in the rankings.
Then there was a bit of a low.
The team had its only regular season loss on the home turf of archrival Clemson in arguably its worst played game of the season in a 1-0 loss to the then No. 20 Tigers.
Despite the loss, the Gamecocks quickly rebounded with a 3-0 win over Georgia to start SEC play.
Things could have gone downhill fast for the Garnet and Black when they found themselves down 2-0 at Alabama in the first road SEC game of the season after just 23 minutes. But the Gamecocks responded, emphatically, and scored five straight goals to win 5-2. South Carolina would allow just two goals for the rest of SEC play.
The Gamecocks then beat then No. 13 Arkansas 1-0 at home after a late goal by Jyllissa Harris in what would become a preview of the SEC title match.
After two road wins at Missouri and Kentucky, the Gamecocks had another low that could have sunk their whole season.
Maintaining the No. 7 ranking, they played a scoreless draw at home against unranked Vanderbilt. Days later, they let in a goal with 56 seconds left to go from a 1-0 win to a 1-1 draw at home against unranked and struggling Tennessee.
Those games did change the season. But for the better.
“I think on our way to the SEC Tournament, I feel like through those challenges, where we had those ties, some teams would be, ‘Ugh, this is where we fall apart.’ I think that is where we really fell together as a team,” junior midfielder Lauren Chang said. “And I think that was my favorite part about this whole season.”
While those draws knocked South Carolina out of winning the division, it still had a chance to win the conference in the regular season heading into the final game on Halloween night.
Though the Gamecocks did their job beating Auburn 2-0, they did not get the help they needed to win the conference. But they still finished unbeaten.
The following week the team proved they were the best in the conference by winning the SEC Tournament without allowing a goal.
But all good things have to come to an end.
“All of us just thanked each other. The group means a lot to everyone,” Smith said. “Grace [Fisk] thanked everyone and said they have so much more to continue on and play for and stay together as a group.”