By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
When you take a look at the South Carolina women's soccer team, it's hard not to notice and focus on senior Savannah McCaskill.
She is, after all, a first-team All-American, the SEC Player of the Year and one of the most decorated players in the history of Gamecock soccer. She broke nearly every school record last year, setting new marks for goals (17) and points (45) in a season and leading the SEC with 10 game-winners. She capped off her fabulous junior season by playing for the U-23 U.S. Women's National Team this summer.
After seven months playing internationally — including a stint with the full U.S. squad — there is every reason to believe McCaskill will be even better this season, perhaps breaking even more records and setting even higher standards for Gamecock soccer.
But that's not what's on McCaskill's mind as her team prepares for its season-opener against Central Florida tonight at Stone Stadium (7 p.m.). What's she really focused on is winning another SEC championship and leading South Carolina to the Final Four and perhaps the national championship game.
"Last year I didn't really focus on any of that," the senior striker from Chapin, S.C. said. "I kinda just played my game and tried to help the team win games and that was my main focus, and that's not going to change this season.
"My team goals are still the same. I want to win another SEC championship and I want to make it farther in the NCAAs and I think that by me focusing on the team goals is going to just raise my game to the next level. And if I break records, so be it, that's always a great thing to have along the way, but it's not something I am going to keep focusing on."
As great as McCaskill was last season, her team was even better, winning a school record 21 games and going 17-0-1 in the regular season, including 11-0 in the SEC. The Gamecocks trailed for just 85 seconds during the regular season and finished the season with a record 17 straight wins. The SEC champs were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Elite Eight for the second time in three years.
South Carolina enters the season ranked No. 4 in the nation, though it was picked to finish third in the SEC behind Florida and Texas A&M, two teams it beat last season.
With four seniors and five starters returning, including All-SEC goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski, the Gamecocks seem poised for another deep NCAA run.
"Our goal is always to try to compete for championships and if we can win the regular season, great," head coach Shelley Smith said. "If we can win the conference tournament and be the best in the SEC, that's our goal. And then that will set us up.
"If you do well in our conference, you are going to do well in the country because our conference is so competitive. We know if we can take care of business in the regular season, it is going to set up us for the postseason, and ultimately that is our biggest goal, to do as well as you can in the postseason."
McCaskill leads a senior class that includes starters Anna Conklin, Dominique Babbitt and Lindsey Lane. Krzeczowski started 21 matches last year and posted a school-record 0.43 goals against average. Her 11 shutouts led the SEC and was ninth in the nation.
The Gamecocks also have a host of freshman on the roster, but Smith expects her seniors and her two stars to lead the charge.
"We have a lot of new faces. I think that's the part where there is some uncertainty," she said. "When you get into game play against top opponents and everything revs up, you are kinda waiting to see how the freshman react and how they handle the rigors of the season. So there is a little bit of unknown having such a new group, but we do have a good core group, and obviously Savannah is excellent and Mikayla is solid back there and has shown to be one of the top goal keepers in the country last year as a freshman.
"When you have that and some good returning players back in your midfield, you know you are pretty solid."
McCaskill, of course, is the key. As one of the most dominant players in college soccer, she will be hard to handle for any opponent.
"She puts the team on her back when she is out there, and that's a great feeling having someone to rely on like that, having a rock," Krzeczowski said. "She is our rock and she does a great job of helping to conduct and move the ball and just being the player she is."
"Savannah is the key piece in our attack," Smith said. "And she is someone who is going to attract so much attention, so getting players around here to step up and finish when they need to and be dangerous threats in addition to her, I think we will have more this year than last year."
Smith says playing with the U.S. National Team this summer has elevated McCaskill's game and made her a more complete player. It's also given her even more confidence going into her senior season.
"I think she's got more confidence playing in the midfield and understands that it takes work on both sides of the ball," she said. "I think two years ago we wouldn't have played her in the midfield, but now she has the ability because she realizes the ground that needs to be covered and the work that has to be done. You are not just an attacking presence. I think that's changed, and just her confidence to take players on."
The Gamecocks lost several seniors off last year's record-setting team, and now McCaskill and the new seniors are challenged with continuing the tradition. McCaskill says they are ready for the challenge.
"Just the past three years we have gone to the Elite Eight twice and then won the SEC, and I think that experience is just going to help this team move along, but that's in the past," she said. "We have to continue to prove ourselves, and I think the senior class really understands that and really wants to leave this program better than we found it."
The end goal, they say, is to take the program where it has never been before.
"Every year that's what we say, national champion, national championship," Krzeczowski said. "But I feel like in the past few years it's actually been in sight. Last year we were almost there. This year, I think we can definitely push it again. We're excited."
"Absolutely, that's always the goal," McCaskill said. "We've gone to the Elite Eight twice and we really want to break through that wall and get to the Final Four. And if we get there, we are going to have a really good shot to win the whole thing."
The Gamecocks open the season with two home games this weekend. They play Central Florida at 7 p.m. Friday night at Stone Stadium and Florida Gulf Coast Sunday at 7 p.m.