It’s not often a team celebrates losing a playoff game, but members of South Carolina Women’s Club Soccer found themselves doing just that after a 1-0 loss to back-to-back region champion No. 1 Virginia at the end of October.
Even with the loss, the Gamecocks booked its first trip to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association National Tournament in Round Rock, Texas.
The Gamecocks made the national tournament cut because it had the second highest rating percentage index — a ranking that accounts for wins, losses and strength of schedule — of the remaining teams in the regional tournament.
After the final whistle blew and the Gamecocks had lost in the regional final, the team learned that it was bound for nationals — the first time in the club's history.
Team members said that, after the match, emotions ran high as players learned they made the cut for the national tournament.
Some tears were shed and a lot of excited screaming happened, said second-year defender and team Secretary Emily Clune and co-president fifth-year center back Madeline McKeown.
“I don’t think anybody even mourned the loss,” Clune said.
The team secured a third undefeated regular season with a clean 3-0-1 record and also finished as the No. 5 team in its region.
“I just feel like we’re more hungry than anything,” Clune said. “We got a taste of like, 'OK, we actually are a good team in the region,' and now we’re wanting to prove it more.”
After ending the season with a 1-1 draw against in-state rival Clemson, South Carolina entered the Southeast Collegiate Soccer Alliance regional tournament as the wildcard representative of the southeast division. This was the team’s second consecutive appearance in the tournament.
In the same regional tournament last year, the 2022-23 team put its name into the team record books with a regional tournament bid as the Southeast Collegiate Soccer Alliance Southeast Division winner, taking the title away from Clemson.
South Carolina did not last long in the tournament, however, falling to UNC and the eventual tournament champion, Virginia, in the group stage.
The team entered the tournament this year with skepticism based on last year’s performance, Clune said. But it quickly vanished after South Carolina powered through the group stage, beating Tennessee 1-0 and N.C. State 4-2.
“We honestly came in knowing that we were good,” Clune said. “But after our performance last year, we were kind of skeptical of how good are we actually going to do.”
South Carolina then fought its way into the championship game, beating both Vanderbilt and N.C. State 1-0, with both game-winning goals scored by sophomore midfielder Payten Kirk.
"(Before) the quarterfinals against Vanderbilt, we were looking at their record ... They had four actual, adult coaches," McKeown said. "It was our third game of the day, and we finished the (second) game an hour before. We were all tired."
Clune said Kirk's goal against Vanderbilt helped the team to finish strong. The goal was the moment when the club realized it could go all the way to the final, even with the exhaustion of playing three games in one day, she said.
The Gamecocks finished the regular season as the No. 3 team in Region II after losing 1-0 to the reigning regional champion Virginia, giving the team its first loss all season.
“Everybody always kind of looks at us — even as a school — as the underdog,” said Lex Rabinowitch, co-president and fourth-year center defender for the team. “We really just want to make a statement that we’re not just some little school in South Carolina. We’re actually really good.”
Despite the loss, the team will be looking to overcome its perception and prove itself when it travels to Texas for the national championship.
“We know we’re nervous,” Clune said. “We’re just more excited to step on the field and play the best of the best.
The Gamecocks will begin it's path to securing a national championship on Nov. 16. The Gamecocks will find out its matchups when the game schedule drops on Thursday, Nov. 9.