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Aug. 21, 2008

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina women’s soccer team opens the 2008 campaign in the state of North Carolina for the second consecutive season when they take on UNC Wilmington at 2 p.m. Saturday. The meeting at the UNCW Soccer Stadium is the first between the Gamecocks (14-6-3 in 2007) and Seahawks (9-8-2 in 2007) as Carolina looks to improve to 8-5-2 all-time in season-openers.

“We’re excited to play at this point,” South Carolina head coach Shelley Smith said. “We haven’t had a scrimmage against another team so we’re starting against our first opponent this year. Everyone is anxious to play a game. We’re ready to go and get started. We feel as prepared as we can be at this point.”

The Gamecocks return six starters and 12 letterwinners from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Danila Monteiro is the team’s lone returning senior and is a co-captain along with juniors Blakely Mattern and Kim Miller. Mattern is a 2008 Preseason All-SEC selection after earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and All-America honors last season as a sophomore. Miller started every game for the Gamecocks last season and was an SEC All-Tournament selection. Carolina also returns starters Shannon Bigbie, Samantha Diaz-Matosas, Brittiny Rhoades and Brooke Jacobs, but the team will look to replace 63 percent of its point-scoring from last season.

Kim Miller will be the staple of the midfield for us this year after losing Ashley Kirk and Erin Sullivan,” Smith said. “She’s been a consistent player for us the past two years and has played every minute, so we know she’ll be able to bring us stability in the midfield.”

Fifteen newcomers will see the field for the first time for the Garnet and Black in a recruiting class that was ranked No. 24 nationally by Soccer Buzz magazine. In addition, someone new will see the field at the goalkeeper position for the first time since 2004 with the departures of decorated seniors Laura Armstrong and Lindsay Thorstenson, a duo that combined to play every minute in goal since their freshman season.

“We’re bringing everyone on the road with us so that everyone can experience team travel and how to handle a road game,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first or fourth game into season, they’re going to have to learn how to handle playing on the road, so we don’t have anything against opening our season on the road.”

South Carolina’s home opener is set for Thursday, Aug. 28 at 5 p.m. against East Carolina. It will be the second meeting between the Gamecocks and Pirates with Carolina holding a 4-1 victory Sept. 8, 2002.

Senior Danila Monteiro returns to the Gamecocks after missing the regular season finale and all of postseason play last season after suffering an ACL injury on Halloween. Monteiro is the only senior on the South Carolina roster this season and is the team’s leading returner in goals, assists (tied) and points.

South Carolina enters 2008 with an all-time record of 7-5-1 in season openers. Two games have gone to overtime – College of Charleston (2001) and Clemson (2003). In home contests, the Gamecocks boast a perfect 5-0 record, outscoring opponents 17-2. When heading on the road to open the season, Carolina carries a 2-4-1 record overall after winning at North Carolina last season. The Gamecocks are 1-2 against ranked opponents, falling to #20 and #13 but defeating #1 UNC last year. Under Coach Smith, the Gamecocks have gone 4-2-1 in season openers.

The Seahawks, picked to finish fifth in the CAA, return 19 letterwinners and eight starters from last year’s 9-8-2 squad. The team is led by senior forward and first team All-CAA selection Kelly Renkin, who led the Seahawks last season in scoring with 24 points (10g, 4a). Senior Emily Pratt returns at goalkeeper where she began the 2007 season with a 322:04 shutout streak.

The Lexington, S.C., duo of junior Shannon Bigbie and freshman Kira Campbell will likely man the front line of Carolina’s midfielders in the 2008 season opener. Both graduates of Lexington High School and former Carolina Elite Soccer Academy (CESA) players, Bigbie and Campbell have put on strong preseason’s in their first season playing together since 2005 when Bigbie was a senior and Campbell was a sophomore at Lexington.

The South Carolina defense has been consistently one of the top in the SEC and in the nation, and all signs point to this season being another strong one for the Garnet and Black. The Gamecocks return two former Freshman All-Americans in junior Blakely Mattern and sophomore Brittiny Rhoades. Mattern (Simpsonville, S.C.) has started every game of her career at center back, earning Freshman All-America honors in 2006 and becoming Carolina’s first All-American after picking up honors in 2007. Mattern also picked up SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, becoming the first sophomore in conference history to earn the honor, and earned a trip to the US U-20 National Team camp last spring. Rhoades (Wilmington, Del.) set a USC freshman record with 23 games played and 22 games started last year at left back, becoming the second Freshman All-American in as many years for the defense.

For the first time since 2002 someone other than a member of the Laura Armstrong/Lindsay Thorstenson duo will play as goalkeeper for South Carolina. Armstrong and Thorstenson played every game between the posts for Carolina from 2003-07 – 93 games and 7,798 minutes – leading the team to an NCAA Tournament appearance and two trips to the SEC Tournament semifinals. The early favorite to take over in goal is redshirt sophomore Mollie Patton (Milford, Ohio), a strong and committed worker that was highly regarding coming out of high school. The dark horse in the rotation is true freshman Roya Mojarab (Tacoma, Wash.), the lone goalkeeper signee in 2008 that impressed the coaches after attending a camp in Columbia.