Strong freshman class has coach looking for NCAA Tourney berth
Shelley Smith is used to winning, not rebuilding.
As a high school athlete at Mount Anthony Union High School in Vermont, Smith captured state titles in soccer, basketball and softball. During her 11 years as the head coach of the South Carolina women’s soccer team, the Gamecocks posted nine winning seasons, won the SEC regular season title in 2011 and made the NCAA Tournament every year from 2007-2011. So it’s no secret that Smith was not pleased with the 2012 campaign, when the Gamecocks finished 7-10-4 and missed the postseason for the first time in five years.
“We were all disappointed,” Smith said. “We had lost a key senior class and hoped that we would come back and fill some of those shoes right away and we just weren’t as prepared as we had hoped to be.”
Despite the setbacks of last season, the expectations for the Gamecock program haven’t changed in 2013. South Carolina returns nine starters and 84.5 percent of its scoring from last season. Juniors Sabrina D’Angelo and Christa Neary and seniors Danielle Au and Elizabeth Sinclair were all named to the SEC Soccer Preseason Watch List. Smith believes that her talented upperclassmen will help set the example for their younger teammates.
“Those four have been a part of a championship program,” Smith said, “and they are determined to get back to being a top team in the SEC.”
Although South Carolina has plenty of veteran talent, the key to the program’s future may be the performance of the incoming freshmen, who Smith called “probably our best class ever.”
“I’m excited about this freshman class,” Smith said. “There are about five or six of them that could come in and give us some key minutes and maybe even take over some starting roles.”
The Gamecocks will tackle a tough non-conference schedule early in the year, as USC will make road trips to Boston, Northeastern and Clemson. The big matchup, however, will come on the first weekend of the season, when the Gamecocks will host perennial power, Duke. Smith said that the contest against the Blue Devils, who finished the 2012 season ranked 8th in the nation, will be a great early-season test for her team.
“You can’t challenge yourself more than playing Duke,” Smith said. “That will give us a chance to measure ourselves against the best in the country.”
If the Gamecocks do make a return to the SEC elite, they will do so with players from across the continent. Smith’s roster is undoubtedly one of the more geographically diverse on USC’s campus. Only two players, freshman midfielder Chelsea Drennan and senior forward Rae Wilson, hail from the Palmetto State. The 32 players that make up the 2013 squad are from 17 different states and Canada. That doesn’t surprise Smith, who says that getting players to Columbia is the key to recruiting.
“If we can get them here on campus, we have a good chance of getting them,” Smith said. “A lot of people don’t know what Columbia’s about and they’re pleasantly surprised when they get to campus. Getting them to come is the hardest part. Then, when you put them all together, we have some great team chemistry.”
Smith says that most of her recruiting pitches focus on the program’s family atmosphere, which makes sense when you consider that Smith’s husband, Jamie, is also the associate head coach.
“It’s been a tremendous advantage,” Smith said. “To have two people so invested in a program, I think that really helps provide leadership for the girls. We care about the program and we care about them. I guess we’re like second parents to them.”
However, Smith said this approach doesn’t work with every recruit.
“Some of them don’t want a second set of parents,” Smith said, joking.
While the Gamecocks will face plenty of obstacles this season, one thing their coach won’t have to worry about is her contract. Smith received an extension in April that will keep her at USC through 2016. Although she tries not to think about her status during the season, Smith said the extension means a lot.
“The fact that someone like [USC athletics director Ray] Tanner comes in and knows the job we’ve done and says that he supports you and the administration supports you, that shows they know we’re going to continue to put good teams on the field,” Smith said.
Despite the challenges of last season, Smith is dedicated to keeping the program at a championship level. The former three-sport letterman is also determined to stay active, even as she tries to guide the Gamecocks back to the NCAA Tournament. Smith competes in tennis leagues, has played in an intramural softball league on campus and also goes skiing, both on the water and the snow.
“I play as many sports as I can,” Smith said, laughing. “Whether it’s volleyball or anything else, I’ll play it.”