When the South Carolina women’s soccer team gathered on Monday to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, the team was overjoyed when they had been awarded a national seed for just the third time in program history.
Moments later the No. 3 seed Gamecocks (13-5-3, 5-3-3 SEC) saw their first round opponent pop up on the screen: Clemson.
Mixed emotions ensued.
While most of the players are viewing the upcoming matchup with the Tigers as a chance to avenge a 1-0 loss to their rival from early September, Head Coach Shelley Smith knows how tough of a game it will be.
For starters, all South Carolina-Clemson women’s soccer games are physical ones, but with the two teams dueling with each other in a win or go home scenario, physical and mental toughness will be crucial.
Senior defender Andie Romness described the September game against Clemson as a “bloodbath” and “kind of dirty.”
Ranked No. 18, South Carolina is the only three seed who will have to face a nationally ranked team in the first round.
While fellow three seeds West Virginia, Kentucky and Texas Tech face unranked opponents like Georgetown, SIUE and Prairie View A&M, Clemson enters Friday’s game ranked No. 22 and the Tigers went 6-1-1 in their final eight ACC matches after starting off ACC play with two losses.
Smith isn’t necessarily surprised that her team drew Clemson because of the NCAA’s tendency to make geographically-based decisions for first round matchups, but she does think that it’s unfortunate that her team has to face such a tough team in just the first round.
“Well, I thought being a seeded team, you shouldn’t face that tough of an opponent in the first round,” Smith said. “But, we know how the NCAA works. Sometimes it’s not equitable.”
Like Clemson, the Gamecocks started off conference play with two losses, but South Carolina has just one loss in its last seven matches, and that defeat came against No. 7 Texas A&M in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament last Friday.
South Carolina’s 1-0 loss to Clemson early in the season was a defensive minded game as senior Gamecock goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo and sophomore Clemson goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan combined to save nine shots.
Smith is expecting another defensive battle since Sheridan and D’Angelo have both been stout in net all season.
Sheridan ranks 15th nationally with just 0.60 goals surrendered per game while D’Angelo ranks 17th, giving up only .61 scores per contest.
“She’s [Sheridan] an excellent goalkeeper,” Smith said. “You’re not going to get an easy goal. Same thing with Sabrina.”
The Gamecocks are going to need some form of scoring and perhaps sophomore Sophie Groff and freshman Savannah McCaskill can take that responsibility since they lead the team with six and five goals respectively.
Smith believes the game will be the most competitive first round game across the country.
When South Carolina and Clemson met at Stone Stadium in September, a program-record 5,855 fans were in attendance and Romness is expecting another big crowd Friday at 6 p.m.
“Last time we played Clemson, they packed the stands all around the goals and fences, so I think anything less than that would be a little sad.”