July 10, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
Last year’s senior class for the South Carolina women’s soccer program will be a tough act to follow. Having reached the NCAA Tournament in each of their seasons at South Carolina, capping their careers with the 2016 SEC Regular Season Championship after going 11-0 in league play, and advancing to the Elite Eight for the second time in three years while posting an 21-2-1 overall mark last fall, the exiting class leaves a substantial legacy of success.
“A lot of what they accomplished had to do with their determination,” said head coach Shelley Smith. “They did a tremendous job in growing as people and as athletes. They reached their potential, and really provided a lot of leadership in their senior year.”
The women’s soccer program finished with a top 15 national ranking in three of the last four years, and the Gamecocks’ 64 total wins and 57 regular season victories since 2013 are the most in a four year period in school history.
With degrees in hand, last year’s seniors (Paige Bendell, Bay Daniel, Chelsea Drennan, Daija Griffin, Sophie Groff, Vanessa Kovar, Kaleigh Kurtz, Evelyn Robinson, and Claire Studebaker), are taking the next step in their respective careers.
We had so many life lessons that will be so important in the working world and life in general.
Paige Bendell has her accounting degree and is busy studying for the Certified Public Accountant exam. She already has a job lined up and will start working at Ernst & Young in Chicago in September. Evelyn Robinson earned a degree in finance and management with a focus on entrepreneurship. She is interviewing for job opportunities with the hopes of eventually working as a financial consultant.
Chelsea Drennan earned her degree in pharmaceutical science and is currently doing her rotations as part of her commitments for two years of pharmacy school. After finishing up a rotation at Greenville Memorial Hospital, she’ll be back in Columbia for a rotation at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital while also working at a local pharmacy.
Vanessa Kovar graduated in May and moved to Charlotte to work with Insight Global.
“It’s a staffing firm in account management and sales,” Kovar said. “I’m involved in sales. I actually got this job through a former South Carolina volleyball player, Mikaela Christiaansen. She recommended me, and I fell in love with the job. They recruit a lot of athletes from top schools to work for them.”
Claire Studebaker earned her exercise science degree in December, and she’s been hard at work in the classroom once again, studying at the USC School of Medicine to become a physician’s assistant.
“I think I started getting interested in this when I tore my ACL in high school,” Studebaker said. “The orthopedic surgeon was really great, and I got really close with the P.A. who worked with him. I saw what he did on a daily basis and did some shadowing, so that really made me fall in love with it.”
After earning her degree in public relations, Daija Griffin recently began working as a “head hunter” for TEKsystems in Atlanta, while Bay Daniel is working as a senior management associate for Pepsi in Charleston after earning a dual degree in retail and marketing.
“I pretty much do a little of everything because it’s a position where you learn from the ground up,” Daniel said. “You learn about every position in the company; from the truck drivers to the salesmen and managers. You train in all aspects of the business.”
Not all of the Gamecocks are done playing soccer, however. Sophie Groff earned her degree in elementary education in May. She originally planned to return to her hometown of Grapevine, Tex., to begin a teaching career when she was contacted to play professionally in Iceland over the summer.
“It was a big surprise,” Groff said. “I had hung up my cleats, and planned to go right into teaching. The coach said they were looking for a goal-producing person, and he said he looked at my stats for the last four years, and the success we had, and thought I would be a good fit. Playing professional soccer overseas had always been a dream of mine.”
Kaleigh Kurtz earned a degree in exercise science with a minor in chemistry, and is training to get back in shape to play professionally overseas after suffering leg and shoulder injuries as the result of a mountain biking accident.
“My ultimate goal is to play in Europe,” Kurtz said. “I’m getting a job in a veterinarian’s office so I can get some experience hours there and then apply to veterinarian school when I’m done playing soccer.”
Making the Transition
Leadership, time management, and the ability to work within a team are among the many skills the Gamecocks learned that still apply on a daily basis as they head into the workforce.
“As student-athletes, there was only a certain amount of time you had for anything outside of our sport, so we’re pretty good at managing a hectic schedule,” Drennan said. “I’m very appreciative of everything we had with the Dodie (Academic Enrichment Center) and how much support we had for everything.”
“With the career I want to get into, just being really good under pressure is another thing that will correlate into my career, eventually,” Kurtz said.
“We learned never to give up,” Robinson said. “Working hard and pushing yourself to be better prepares you for any position or role you are put in.”
“[Associate Head Coach) Jamie [Smith] and Shelley were obviously big on making us better soccer players, but more importantly, they wanted us to each be a great person,” Griffin said. “That’s helped make me into the person I am today. That’s something I definitely I appreciate.”
“We have such a unique experience in being student-athletes,” Bendell said. “It’s such a great school. It really teaches you discipline with all of the responsibilities you have. We had so many life lessons that will be so important in the working world and life in general. There’s nothing that prepares you better for that than being a student-athlete at a high caliber school.”
“One of the things I learned was how to really work well with a lot of different people,” Studebaker said. “When I got here as a freshman, I was surrounded by girls from completely different backgrounds. You have to learn to come together and put aside any differences if you want to succeed. It will be the same thing when I’m out there practicing on a team with nurse practitioners, pharmacists and everyone else. We’ll have the common goal of trying to help the patients.”
“The people I interviewed with said they love student-athletes because they already have that drive and that passion,” Kovar said. “It’s tough for student-athletes to get internships and jobs while they’re in school, but playing a sport helps you learn a lot about the real world. You have a lot of responsibilities.” Some have found other methods to help them cope with the change.
“I’ve gotten really into kickball,” Daniel laughed. “I joined an adult kickball league for the summer, and I’ve joined an adult coed soccer league for the fall.”
Last year’s senior class set the bar pretty high in terms of on-field success. While most cite last year’s SEC Championship among their favorite memories as a Gamecock, each has other unique perspectives.
“Winning the SEC Championship was awesome, and so was being a No. 1 seed, and making it to the Elite Eight, but I think one of best memories was beating North Carolina at North Carolina (2014 NCAA Tournament) because we were such a big underdog that game,” Groff said.
“My favorite season was our senior season because you have a perspective of four years, and you’ve been through a lot with your team,” Studebaker said. “To go out on top like we did is something really special.”
“Our last [regular season] home game against Ole Miss was a pretty special night because my family was there, and that’s when we won the SEC,” Robinson said. “Beating Florida was a great game. I just remember how hot it was and then winning on a P-K in overtime.”
You’re more than just an athlete. You’re more than just a student. That’s something that Jamie and Shelley have always emphasized.
“One of my favorite things in the world is networking and meeting new people,” Daniel said. “Welcoming the incoming freshmen every year was one of my favorite things because I just got to know different types of people. At the end, you have so many friends.”
“It’s neat to see the impact that we made,” Drennan said. “We were all really close, and we tried to set an example for the class below us for how we expect the program to be. The camaraderie of the senior class was awesome.”
“One of my favorite game memories was in 2015 against Oklahoma when Lindsey Lane scored in overtime,” Kurtz said. “It was one of those games where the crowd was extremely pumped, and it helped us get to a win. I always loved the South Carolina vs. Clemson game. It’s kind of sad, but it was also kind of happy, after our last [2016 NCAA Tournament] game against North Carolina, having all of our fans there to support us even though we lost was really helpful.”
Passing the Torch
Expectations will be high for the 2017 Gamecock women’s soccer team, and last year’s senior class looks forward to seeing future classes carry on what they helped build.
“I hope the future classes win more championships than we did,” Kovar said. “I hope what we did is just a starting point. I hope they see how hard it is to get the program where it is now, and I hope they continue to build. I hope they get to the Final Four and win the national championship.”
“Something that gets passed on each year is the family atmosphere,” Bendell said. “We’re such a tight-knit team, and that really pushed us forward. That’s the most important thing. No matter how the season goes, as long as you stay together as a family, you’ll keep moving forward.”
“I think it’s just the idea of not giving up,” Kurtz said. “My sophomore year, I didn’t really play much. It was about putting extra work in. So I want others to always want to put the work in to be the best.”
“Being skilled as friend, an employee, a daughter and all those other things matters just as much or more than playing in a field,” Studebaker said. “It’s important for the rest of your life, and that’s something that South Carolina has been really great in teaching us. You’re more than just an athlete. You’re more than just a student. That’s something that Jamie and Shelley have always emphasized, and I think that’s something special to our program.”
“They truly wanted to leave a mark,” Smith said. “They accomplished so much and brought the program to a whole new level. We talk a lot about firsts for the program, and this group helped us do something unthinkable in going undefeated in the SEC. That’s an amazing accomplishment. They’ve left us in a great position to continue growing.”
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