The Daily Gamecock

South Carolina women’s soccer program builds community, support through Familia FC

<p>Gary Behm raises his glass for a toast before the Gamecock women's soccer team takes on Tennessee on Sept. 24, 2023. Behm is the father of senior midfielder Brianna Behm.</p>
Gary Behm raises his glass for a toast before the Gamecock women's soccer team takes on Tennessee on Sept. 24, 2023. Behm is the father of senior midfielder Brianna Behm.

Throughout the 2010s, attendance at South Carolina women's soccer matches grew to heights previously unseen in program history. During that time, the Gamecocks became not just one of the most well-supported women's soccer teams in the SEC, but the entire country.

In the spring of 2018, associate head coach Jamie Smith was struck with an idea. Inspired by supporters' groups that cheer on professional soccer teams across the globe, Smith decided to create a group in Columbia as a means of bringing together past and present fans.

“If there is something for them to be a part of and to join and to get perks with it, then it’s kind of a no-brainer for us,” assistant coach Marnie Merritt said. “They’re going to come anyway. Why not put together a party, tailgate-like atmosphere that gives you full access to our student-athletes as well?”


Families gather for food and activities at a tailgate before the Gamecocks’ matchup against Tennessee on Sept. 24, 2023. The tailgate has become a tradition for the South Carolina women’s soccer program.

Familia FC, the supporters' group created by Smith and the Gamecock women’s soccer coaching staff, has worked to represent the team’s community-oriented values and, in the process, live up to its name.

Just two years after its foundation, the bond between Familia FC supporters and the team was tested in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it did little to dampen the local community’s support of the women’s soccer program, according to Merritt.

“We had Familia fans in the stands still, which was awesome when we didn’t know if we were going to have a season at points. I had Familia members writing me, ‘Well, when can I buy my season tickets? Because we’re coming,'” Merritt said. “That kind of support was awesome and kept us through the season.”

Since then, Familia FC has offered a variety of activities and social events for its members. The group’s most popular activities are the pregame tailgates hosted in front of the Gamecock Soccer Complex, where members eat food, play games and socialize before home matches. 

Merritt said each season kicks off with a preseason welcome event, allowing members to watch practice and get autographs from the players. Shelley also periodically hosts “chalk talks,” where she educates members about soccer tactics and terminology ahead of selected matches.

Gary Behm, a Familia FC member and the father of senior midfielder Brianna Behm, said Familia FC members sometimes organize unofficial social events on their own, including on road trips.

"When we go to Pensacola (for the SEC Tournament), we’ve got several houses,” Behm said. “We’re hanging out. We’re on the beach. We’re going fishing. We’re doing everything together, so that leads you to be more of a close-knit family.”

Familia FC also offers local youth the opportunity to interact with Gamecock women’s soccer players, both in season and during the offseason. In the fall, Gamecock student-athletes participate in the Pitch Pals program, where the team runs onto the field with players from local youth soccer clubs and helps at soccer camps during the summer.


The South Carolina women’s soccer team high-fives surrounding families at a tailgate on Sept. 24, 2023. Families gathered to support the team before it took on Tennessee.

For Merritt, these initiatives serve as a way to inspire the next generation of women’s soccer players, something she believes is important to help grow the game.

“All these little kids, all they have to do is go to ESPN, and they can pull it up on the SEC Network, the ACC Network, ESPN U,” Merritt said. “People say, ‘If you can see it, you can be it.’ All of this helps in the brand of what South Carolina women’s soccer is and, in turn, what women’s soccer is nationally for us.”

Outside of social events, Familia FC serves as a source of support not only for its members but for South Carolina’s players as well. Merritt said this is an especially important function of the group given the current state of college sports. Student-athletes nationwide are experiencing heightened mental exhaustion, according to a 2022 study by the NCAA.

“At the end of the day, you have 200-plus people that care about you as a human being, rather as just a soccer player, and that, to me, is invaluable," Merritt said. "To know that when we do the Gamecock Walk and there’s 100-plus people out there cheering us on, it only helps you.”

Familia FC also has mechanisms in place to support the team financially through the Women's Soccer Enhancement Fund, an account set up by South Carolina Athletics that receives gifts and donations to help fund the women's soccer program. Merritt said Familia FC funnels all the money it generates back into that fund and has come up with ways to encourage members to donate.

Before this season, Familia FC hosted an auction and pickle ball tournament for its members at the Lexington County Tennis Center that raised more than $10,000. Events such as these are part of the group’s ongoing efforts to enhance its brand and expand its influence in the community Merritt said.

“It’s a lot, but at the same time, we’re also trying to get these people to come to our games and support our program,” Merritt said. “They do an amazing job, and it’s now how do we put on these great things that people are like, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of that. I want to do that. How do I get to do that?’ and that’s through being a Familia member.”


Junior defender Taylor Jacobson and her teammates on the women’s soccer team high-five surrounding families at a tailgate on Sept. 24, 2023. Families tailgate at the Roost Athletics Village prior to the team’s games.

Familia FC member Terry O’Rourke, the father of sophomore forward Shae O’Rourke, said there are few women’s soccer programs that receive as much support as South Carolina’s, but that creating groups such as Familia FC helps increase the reach of college soccer programs in their respective communities.

“This school travels large. You don’t see it with other schools. Other schools are now starting to duplicate what we do, which is nice to see,” O’Rourke said. “It’s good for their schools, and just because they’re our rivals, we like to see the kids, the girls grow their game.”

O’Rourke said that being a part of the group has also allowed him to develop lasting relationships with like-minded individuals who have a passion for supporting South Carolina soccer.

“I’ve got to meet a lot of new people, great people, and that’s probably one of the best things. Now I have friends for life,” O’Rourke said. “We lose some during the high school years, and now we gain more, and it’s great. I think we’ll have these friendships for years to come.”

Merritt said that in her mind, the South Carolina women’s soccer program and Familia FC are one and the same, and she sees the group as an extension of the Smiths' large soccer family.

“A lot of people go home from their job, and they talk about their kids or their — whatever else is going on in their life. This is Shelley and Jamie’s life,” Merritt said. “Familia and the name only helped encompass what the program is, and I think Carolina women’s soccer and Familia are so closely related and have the same values and want the same things.”