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Women's Soccer Embracing Challenges and Excited for Spring Season
Women's Soccer  . 

Women's Soccer Embracing Challenges and Excited for Spring Season

by Brad Muller, Director of Content

It’s not a typical season for South Carolina women’s soccer. It hasn’t been a typical season for anybody for that matter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. South Carolina went 7-3 in the fall after playing an SEC-only schedule during its usual season, and now the Gamecocks resume play with a six-game non-conference spring schedule and hopefully a NCAA postseason after that. This creates some unique challenges.
cathertine barry vs. georgia
Fr. Catherine Barry scored 4 goals in the fall.

“Our team is a little different,” said head coach Shelley Smith. “We’re definitely on the low side in terms of numbers. For us to prepare for our first game, we don’t have the full 11 vs. 11 situation. So, that’s a test.”

There are several reasons for the smaller roster, including graduation of players in December, other seniors fulfilling internship requirements in the spring, which is normally their “off-season,” as well as others who are rehabilitating from surgery after the fall.

“We lost (2020 First Team All-SEC defender) Anna Patten, who became a professional and was a starting centerback and captain,” Smith said.  “We’ve also had seniors who have gone on to graduate or others that are graduating in May, but they had internships lined up for things they needed to focus on. They hadn’t planned on having a spring season, so there are four that chose to focus on that. They’re torn about it, but we understand it because it’s something they have to take for their future career. That has affected our numbers and our depth. We have a very small roster.”

While it’s difficult to lose veteran players, there is a bit of a silver lining that the team has rallied around.

“It gives these younger players that much more opportunity to get on the field and play in matches,” Smith said. “Everyone has been great to work with. They’ve been easy to motivate. They’re excited to be playing. There are limitations to what you can do in a social setting, so this is an outlet that gives them some normalcy.

“We have a few seniors that are going to continue, which will be helpful this spring. Ryan Gareis (2 goals, 1 assist in the fall) is looking stronger than she did in the fall. We’re excited that she is back to play. Same thing with Lauren Chang (1 goal, 3 assists in the fall), who is a captain. You also have seniors sitting on the sideline who can’t play due to injury. (Defender) Sarah Eskew is still recovering from an ACL and (Forward) Luciana Zullo (13 career goals), who had a tough fall trying to deal with an injury and she had it repaired during the break, so she knew that the spring was going to be out.”

“The challenge for this next class is that we have not seen a lot of them in person. It’s going to be difficult to make a decision.”

Normally, athletics teams have more hours of participation allowed when they are in-season as opposed to out of season, but because this is not soccer’s normal time to play, the team doesn’t have the expanded hours that they would have for in-season play.

“We are still limited by the number of hours they give us to play,” Smith said. “That didn’t change. So, now we have a season. We’ve been training this team in an eight-hour, limited segment. We’ve only been allowed four hours a week on the field. That’s a challenge. A lot of them haven’t played since December. The limited time is OK, but we haven’t been able to progress like we would if we had a little more time. The development piece is going to be a little different than the norm.”
hinz action shot vs. Florida 2020
Soph. Goalkeeper Heather Hinz

Spring practice normally allows for more one-on-one work to develop a student-athlete, but now that time is spent in preparing the team for a game.

“I think we’ll still have time for development because we’ll have more time between games,” Smith said. “There is only game a week (in the spring).”

Recruiting has also been a challenge during the pandemic as the NCAA has instituted lengthy “dead periods” for which coaches cannot have in-person contact with prospective players. 

“Our main recruiting right now has been on players we had seen in the past, live, or had been to our camps at a young age, so we had an idea about them,” Smith said. “You’re going off things you have seen, but you haven’t seen their growth.

“It’s also been hard on the players. They’re having to make decisions on schools based on not really having interactions in-person with the coaching staff or the team. A lot of them, if they haven’t already been on campus, they have to come do a tour of their own without having anyone show them around or see what the team is like. We’ve tried to do a lot on Zoom meetings and expose them to the coaches. Our players have been involved in trying to answer questions. We try to do things on social media. It’s definitely different.

“The challenge for this next class is that we have not seen a lot of them in person. It’s going to be difficult to make a decision.”

With the challenges in front of them, Smith and the Gamecocks are excited to be back out on the pitch. There was not a NCAA Tournament in the fall, and Smith is hopeful that her team can put itself in a position to reach the postseason for the eighth straight year.

“They will determine that in April,” Smith said. “There will be a selection show, but it will only be 48 teams instead of 64. You’ll have the automatic bids (from conference tournament winners from the fall), so it will be that much more difficult. There will be about 19 at-large bids, and we’re trying to be one of those teams chosen from across the country.”

Monday’s spring opener at Charlotte was postponed due to some issues with available players for the 49ers. South Carolina will host College of Charleston on Sunday, March 7 at Stone Stadium.