South Carolina’s 2012 Hopes Are Largely in Sabrina D’Angelo’s Hands
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A project over a decade in the making, South Carolina and Shelley Smith finally got to the top of the SEC mountain in 2011, wresting the league title out of Florida’s hands and delivering the club’s second major trophy to go along with the 2009 SEC Tournament title. A little more than half a decade ago this Gamecocks program looked anything but championship material. Heading into 2006, the Gamecocks weren’t close to being contenders in the league, coming off two straight losing seasons, including an abject 6-12 campaign in 2005 that probably had some wondering if head coach Shelley Smith was the right person for the job.
Smith took over for Sue Kelly in 2001 after years of underachievement and a dreadful 2000 season that saw the Gamecocks go 4-16-0 overall en route to finishing bottom of the league. Smith was undoubtedly used to fixer-uppers, having taken a similarly moribund Rhode Island program into winning territory in the span of just a few seasons. The SEC was a tougher nut to crack though, and Smith’s results were inconsistent to say the least. A fifth place finish in 2002 was a great achievement, but the program then missed out on the postseason in two of her next three seasons.
As the heat conceivably began to rise in Columbia, so did the profile of the Gamecocks as they began to climb the ladder in the SEC. Though they were some way off the bubble in 2006, they did manage a fifth place finish and advanced to the SEC Tournament semi-finals for the first time in the history of the program. It set up a fantastic 2007 season, where the Gamecocks won fourteen matches, including a 1-0 win in Chapel Hill in the season opener against North Carolina, the most for the program since 1999.
Coincidentally, SC also returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 that year. 2008 was a more difficult year, and Smith’s side most definitely were one of the very last sides into the Big Dance and ended the season still looking for their first NCAA Tournament win after a contentious loss to William & Mary. South Carolina’s progress would come to a head in 2009, when the Gamecocks would break through in a big way. SC would win eleven in a row to open up the season, profiting under a withering defense and hanging in the SEC title race until late.
The Gamecocks would shine brightest in Orange Beach and the SEC Tournament though, avenging all three of their regular season defeats by beating Georgia, Florida, and LSU in succession to lift their first major trophy. The last victory over the Tigers was after penalties and a stunning comeback with a last minute equalizer in normal time from captain Blakely Mattern in a classic encounter. The Gamecocks would advance all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, winning the first two NCAA Tournament matches in program history before falling to Wake Forest on a literal last second header from a corner in an unbelievable ending.
Carolina entered 2010 hoping to go one better in the league and be the one to finally topple all-conquering Florida from their perch on top of the SEC. Non-conference play would bring a few ups and downs, with the highlight being a great 1-0 win at Wake Forest to cap off action before SEC season started. After a shock draw to Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks promptly won eight of their next nine, giving themselves a chance at lifting the SEC title in a showdown with Florida at home but fell to their nemesis, 1-0. The club would get another shot at Florida and at silverware in the SEC Tournament, making it to the final along with their rivals but fell again by a single goal. Carolina would top upset minded UNC Greensboro in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament but were then handled with ease by Virginia a few days later in the second round.
Heading into 2011, South Carolina looked like one of the SEC’s top teams again, but some key losses also meant they weren’t tipped as title favorites coming into the new year. The Gamecocks would split their first four matches, with one respectable loss to national finalists Duke and one less so, to Pac-12 strugglers Arizona State in Tempe. SC’s form would pick up towards the end of non-conference play, with four wins in a row, but the club would spurn another opportunity to make an impression, falling to Wake Forest, 2-0.
While Smith’s side went into SEC play with a decent W-L-T record, it was notably short on big wins, meaning that the Gamecocks needed to string together some wins in league play to go dancing. Carolina would beat Tennessee in the opener, but two straight losses after that raised some doubts in Columbia. Supporters needn’t have worried though, as the club promptly won their final eight matches in the league, including six by multiple goals. The final regular season win was extra sweet, as South Carolina went to Gainesville and topped Florida, 2-1, and lifted the SEC title on the home turf of their greatest league rivals.
A red hot South Carolina team looked like decent bets to do the double heading into Orange Beach, but they would be the victims of one of the most shocking conference tournament upsets in recent memory. Eighth seeds Alabama had just crept into the SEC Tournament but didn’t show it in their quarterfinal showdown, taking advantage of a flat South Carolina performance and sending the Gamecocks packing after a 1-0 win.
You have to credit Smith and her team for coming back from that setback, a psychological blow that would have buried many teams. The Gamecocks were able to triumph over Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a close one. SC had received an unforgiving draw in the Big Dance from the Selection Committee though and were tasked with going out to Palo Alto and trying to derail the Stanford juggernaut. While Carolina did their best, they were quite plainly out of their depth against the future national champions and fell to a 2-0 defeat out on The Farm.
Despite just bringing home one postseason win in 2011, there was still much to celebrate in Columbia at the end of the season. The club had delivered their third straight fifteen win season and walked away with their first league title, perhaps signifying that South Carolina has truly arrived in the upper echelon of SEC clubs, a status they likely won’t be budged from any time soon.
Retaining their SEC title is going to be a big challenge though, as South Carolina loses five starters from last season’s squad, in addition to Canadian sophomore Sabrina D’Angelo for a month as she heads up Canada’s U20 World Cup squad. The Gamecocks were on top of the charts in both league goals scored and league goals conceded last season, a sure formula for silverware but also a feat unlikely to be repeated this season in the face of such heavy losses. While the club feels the sting of losing their best defender in center-back Ellen Fahey, the real danger is on offense, where the club loses four of its five top scorers from last season’s title winning side.
Junior Danielle Au, who scored seven goals last season, will likely be doing a lot of heavy lifting on offense this season, with no other returnee having managed more than three goals. Especially worrisome is the loss of Second Team All-American Kayla Grimsley, who also reeled in her second straight SEC Offensive Player of the Year award. Ten goals and ten assists was just a small indicator of her importance to the club’s offense.
Almost everything SC did going forward went through Grimsley, whether she was acting as the finisher of moves or the architect of them. Replacing such a legend is a tall order, but one that has to be done quickly if Carolina are to avoid slipping down the pecking order in the new look SEC.
Though Grimsley had been the club’s superstar for the past four seasons, her stardom was almost eclipsed by a sweeping D’Angelo-Mania that overtook Columbia and much of the SEC. That D’Angelo was quality was hardly in doubt as she came to South Carolina with plaudit after plaudit, looking like one of Canada’s brightest young prospects after some great showings as a youth international. She was everything expected and more, quickly turning into the SEC’s best goalkeeper and one of the best in the nation as only a freshman.
Possessing the ability to pull off stunning reflex saves, along with exquisite footwork for a keeper of such youth, D’Angelo was also a weapon on set pieces, often taking long free kicks in her own end for the club. Her exploits earned her well deserved SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors in a tremendous debut season. The heroics continued at the CONCACAF U20 World Cup qualifiers, and D’Angelo figures to be one of her nation’s best players at the upcoming finals in August.
That of course means that Carolina has to figure out what to do in her absence. One backup, Roya Mojarab, graduates, leaving two returning options and one newcomer to battle it out for the role of D’Angelo’s top understudy. Senior Darien Vercillo seems to be well poised for the top backup role after coming into the program highly touted in her own right. After two seasons of no game action, Vercillo was more active last year, starting a pair of matches in lieu of an injured D’Angelo in early September while also seeing relief duty in six other matches. The experience should be invaluable this season as she pursues the starting job while D’Angelo is in Japan.
Also returning is junior Alex Holland, who played about a quarter of an hour against Mississippi State in 2010 but hasn’t been on the field in her other two seasons with the club. The new face in goal is Floridian Emily Ball, yet another highly touted goalkeeping recruit brought in by the South Carolina staff. A mainstay on the Region III ODP team for nearly half a decade, Ball could well make a grab for major minutes early on if she impresses in camp.
Given D’Angelo’s grip on the starting job upon her return though, it may be wiser to redshirt the promising Ball with a view towards saving a season of eligibility that would be put to good use after D’Angelo’s graduation. There might be some tense moments without their goalkeeping talisman early, but this unit should be one of the nation’s best upon her return.
The Gamecocks ended up being remarkably successful on defense considering just how young they were on the whole. The lone senior starter was Ellen Fahey, and the Gamecocks made use of more than one freshman during the course of their title winning season. Fahey ended her career as one of the program’s best ever defenders, capping off her tenure in Columbia with All-Region Third Team honors. A big, muscular force defending for the Gamecocks in central defense, Fahey also was a nice target on set pieces and added a goal and three assists to the SC cause last season. The club also loses a bit of depth with the departures of Ali Glemser, a key reserve who also made starts at both full-back positions as a senior, and Lauren Hyden, who made fourteen appearances off the bench last year.
Despite the losses, South Carolina does still return a fair amount of starting experience from last year’s club. The leader figures to be fifth-year senior Dani Henry, who put in shifts at right-back for much of the season before switching to the left flank for the last handful of games. Henry is without a doubt the club’s most versatile defender, having also started every game at center-back in 2010. Though her versatile is a great asset, Henry’s most positive trait may be her experience, as the defense around her is still very young for the most part.
One of the spots in the middle is likely to be filled by sophomore Andie Romness, who began her rookie year as a starter, lost that starting job, and then regained it late in the year as Carolina made their run to the SEC title. Romness wasn’t a big factor offensively but did have a big game against LSU, coming up with a pair of assists in the club’s huge win. Also capable in midfield at times, Romness still seems most likely to anchor the club’s defense this year.
Partnering her in central defense could be either Henry or fellow sophomore Christa Neary. Neary’s another very versatile defender for the Gamecocks, having played much of the season in the middle of defense before switching to right-back later on. She finished with three assists, including two on game winners in the league and should be a viable option wherever she ends up in defense for SC this year.
The club’s likely left-back starter this year is yet another sophomore, Ali Whitney. Whitney had started much of the season at left-back before going down for the rest of the season with a hamstring injury that necessitated the rejiggering of the back four. She nabbed the crucial golden goal against Arizona early in the year before also finishing with three assists. Given the club’s worries in attack, Whitney’s ability to deliver in corner kicks could be more crucial than ever for a club that did so well on set pieces last year.
The club isn’t exactly swimming in defensive depth, meaning newcomers are going to have to come in and make an impact right off the bat. That includes junior Abby Sams, a South Florida transfer who started three games for the Bulls last year. It’s hard seeing this team being better without Fahey and with a lot of youth still projected as starters, but with a little more experience under their belts, South Carolina could still pack a very good defense if they stay healthy.
Many of the problems for this year’s South Carolina squad start in the midfield, where the club finds itself short on returning depth. The club losses just one starter, but that starter, Kortney Rhoades, was the club’s joint second leading scorer with seven goals last season. Rhoades, sister of former Carolina standout Brittiny, had endured what was essentially a lost season in 2010 after preseason ankle surgery severely limited her. She was back to her best last season though, starting all but one match as a senior and providing some much needed offensive thrust from midfield, including five goals in the league, with two of those tallies coming in the 2-1 win over Tennessee to open up SEC play.
Also gone is Ariane Lukens, a blow that cuts deeply into the club’s midfield depth. Lukens had been one of the team’s top options off the bench last season, scoring two goals and adding two assists. She also got a little bit of starting experience with three starts but transferred to Samford in the offseason.
While the Gamecocks do return a pair of last season’s midfield starters, there’s precious little in depth around and behind them. Junior Elizabeth Sinclair has been the club’s midfield destroyer for the past two seasons and should continue that role this year for South Carolina. And absolute workhorse who almost never comes off the pitch, Sinclair is also good for the odd assist here and there, though her duties will undoubtedly be mostly defensive this year.
The midfield flash might have to come from junior Danielle Au, who also looks like the team’s best hope for goals this season. After a strong rookie season that saw her score five goals and three assists while splitting time between forward and attacking midfielder roles, Au almost exclusively filled a role in the center of the park as the midfield’s biggest attacking weapon last year. Au started off in decent form but really started to hit her stride late last season, with five goals in the club’s final seven league games, finishing with four game winning goals overall. Au could be used to fortify the midfield but also might be needed up front given the club’s paucity of proven options in attack. She’s been a great ancillary scoring option alongside Grimsley thus far in her career, but it remains to be seen if she can get it done as the top option.
Beyond those two…it gets sparse to say the least. The only real dedicated returning option is sophomore Samantha Gonzalez, a Mexican U20 international who saw a smattering of time off the bench as a rookie in 2010. She was hurt all of last year though, and asking her to jump into the starting lineup after a year out is a big ask. Other than her though, it’s likely rookies and forwards being shoehorned into midfield roles.
The best of the former category looks to be Raina Johnson, a 5’0″ spark plug who can play in either midfield or attack and who has been a Region III ODP mainstay for the past few seasons. Sinclair and Au (if she stays in midfield) are both solid and experienced contributors, but beyond them are a lot of questions, meaning this group could face some problems in 2012.
It’s pretty simple for South Carolina this season. They lose all three of last season’s starting forwards, meaning they’re in need of a whole lot of scoring to replace all that was lost. The biggest loss is that of Grimsley, who made a pretty good case for herself as the club’s greatest player ever as she spearheaded the charge to South Carolina’s first league title. One of the most creative forwards in the nation, Grimsley was just as comfortable dropping into midfield to help the club retain possession or sliding her teammates deft passes as she was knocking them in the back of the net. At the end of her storied career, Grimsley finished second in career goals and first in career assists and points after ten goals and ten assists last year. Four goals in the club’s last five league games helped bring the title back to Columbia, while Grimsley pulled off the amazing feat of scoring a point in ten of the club’s eleven league games, with only Kentucky able to keep her off the scoresheet.
The club’s starting wing forwards also depart this year, with Lolly Holland and Maria Petroni also being strong sources of offense last year. Holland had been one of the club’s constants in midfield for three seasons, including scoring four goals in 2010. She then moved up to the left wing as a senior and had a fantastic final season in Columbia, with a season high six goals, including four in the league and the winner against Texas in the NCAA Tournament while also adding five assists.
Petroni had been a left winger a season before and had experienced a bit of offensive growth in 2010, with two goals and three assists as she grew into a full-time starter. The Georgia native would switch flanks in 2011 and promptly had her best season offensively for the club, with four goals and five assists overall while having two goals and three assists in the league. Petroni also provided the game winning assist for Holland’s goal against Texas in the NCAA Tournament. Adding to the club’s woes up front is the loss of Natalie Aaron, whose role had decreased over time with the club but who still gave the team nine games from mostly off the bench last season.
There’s a pretty good chance that Au ends up on the frontline given the depth of the losses, but who partners her is anyone’s guess with a lot of unproven reserves trying to stake a claim for a starting spot. Canadian junior Gabrielle Gilbert is the club’s Swiss army knife and has been in duty everywhere on the pitch in her two seasons in Columbia thus far. After seeing a lot of time in defense as a rookie, Gilbert played a lot as an attacking reserve last year, netting three goals and two assists, while scoring the game winner against Auburn in October. Carolina’s got plenty of holes in midfield and attack to fill, and it seems very likely that Gilbert will find a way into one of those vacancies this year.
Fellow Canadian Sam McGowan spent much of her rookie year in 2010 recovering from an ACL tear but saw action in twelve games last year, though she didn’t play in the postseason and offered little in front of goal as a sophomore. Sophomore Alexa Gainey was one of the team’s top reserves last season, seeing action in seventeen matches but also made little impact on the stat sheet as a rookie. Gainey could also suit up in the midfield for the club this year despite playing on the wing in her one start last year.
Towering sophomore Taylor Leach makes a great target forward and played in most games as a reserve up front last season though she didn’t record a point. Leach was recruited as a defender and could also be auditioned at center-back this year if needed. Rae Wilson missed all of last season with a hip injury but was a key reserve in 2010 and had a goal and an assist against Arkansas that season. With the attacking positions looking wide open this year, she could yet be a major minutes grabber if healthy.
Given the unproductive nature of many of the returnees thus far in their career, it might be up to some rookies to provide the needed offensive punch. Courtney Angotti-Smith is one of the state of South Carolina’s top recruits this season and was an invitee to the id2 National Camp a few years ago. She’s a big forward at 5’8″, and so is potential center-forward force Coryn Bajema. A rare recruit from the west coast, the Washington native stands at an imposing 5’10″ and has been a Region IV ODP mainstay for the past few seasons. Bajema is a good contender to be the big target up front spearheading the line, though she will still likely display the inconsistencies that go with being a rookie.
On paper, this group looks to be a serious liability for South Carolina going into the new season. Even if Au is moved up here and keeps scoring, she’s likely to face a ton of defensive pressure unless someone else steps up to score some goals. And given the relative unproductive nature of most of the reserves and what looks like a solid but not spectacular set of rookie reinforcements, those goals are far from guaranteed.
After a season of fireworks on offense and a league title, South Carolina will probably be back to being a defense first unit this year. While fans of the rush of goals that propelled the club to the top of the SEC last season may be disappointed, anything else would be suicidal given the club’s massive losses in attack. While big name reinforcements are on the way next season, South Carolina might struggle a little to bridge the gap this year. A lot of last year’s reserves and this year’s rookies are going to have to step up to keep the offense flowing at an acceptable pace in a league that is as offensive as any in the nation. Considering the club’s proficiency on set pieces last season, that might be one of the Gamecocks’ best routes to goals this year as they try to blend in a lot of new players in to the starting lineup.
Defensively, despite losing Fahey, the Gamecocks should be solid. They return three-fourths of the SEC’s best offense statistically last year, along with the excellent D’Angelo in goal. The group as a whole is still very young though, so they still might take a few knocks, though they should still be among the league’s best. D’Angelo’s absence early in the season on international duty could be testing for the club, though the non-conference schedule looks pretty doable on the whole for Carolina.
Odds are, the Gamecocks won’t retain their SEC title, but they could be a lot better late than early if the offense begins to gel. An SEC Tournament title is likely their best route to silverware this year, but the main goal is likely making it back to the NCAA Tournament in the wake of such heavy losses, though their league rivals won’t make it easy on them.