Aug. 17, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
With two trips to the NCAA Elite Eight in the last three years as well as last year’s undefeated conference run en route to the Southeastern Conference Championship, South Carolina’s senior class has already built on the successful tradition of the women’s soccer program. As they prepare for 2017, there is still a sense of unfinished business.
“A big thing for us is to build off what we did last year,” senior Savannah McCaskill said. “The whole team has done a lot of work since our last game last year, and through the spring and in the summer with all of the freshmen that came in to make sure that by our first game, we’re ready to go. We just want to do our best, hopefully win another SEC Championship, and make it farther in the NCAA Tournament, passed the Elite Eight. The Final Four is a goal for us.”
“As a team we all share similar goals; just sticking together as a team, even when things get rough, and of course getting another SEC Championship and getting farther in the NCAA Tournament,” said senior Anna Conklin. “Our senior class wants to leave this program better than we found it.”
Although they graduated nine seniors last year, this year’s team understands that they will have a target on their backs after posting a 21-2-1 overall record and 11-0 SEC mark in 2016.
“Every year we kind of have a target on our backs, and I think this year especially [other teams] are going to be gunning for us,” senior Lindsey Lane said. “But, we’re ready. I wouldn’t say there is more pressure. I think every year it’s a new team, so you come out with that in mind. We do have that shadow from last year, and how well we did. We have a lot of freshmen and a couple of new transfers who are really good, so I think we have some great potential. The season is going to great.”
“It’s a good type of pressure,” said senior Dominique Babbitt. “Everyone’s always giving you their best shot, which is always a fun atmosphere to play in. I’m excited about it.”
“It’s kind of cool,” McCaskill said. “This program has reached new heights. We’re always going to come in with a target on our back, and that’s fine because we know that we have to earn that target. We might have won the SEC last year, but that doesn’t really mean anything [this year], so we have to keep earning that target on our backs.”
A big thing we talk about in this program is legacy and leaving the program better than you found it.
Head Coach Shelley Smith is happy that the team continues to aim for more and raising the level of expectations is part of the culture.
“The players here know they’ve come into something that has grown and has become a top team in the country, and that’s what they want to be a part of,” Smith said. “There are those expectations. That’s what you signed up for and wanted to be a part of. You’re not going to go undefeated in the SEC every year. Our expectation is that you’re going to reach your potential as a team.
“We don’t focus on last year. We focus on this year. It’s a new team. We set out new goals. They understand that this program is at a point where there are high expectations. We’re always setting out to do new things and do the best we can.”
Each of the six seniors, as well as graduate transfer Meaghan Carrigan is eager to take on a leadership role, on and off the field.
“Off the field, I want to be a leader for the team and someone people can go to or relate to,” senior Lauren Jankowski said. “It means being vocal in training and games, and making sure everyone has the proper mindset and is ready to go.”
“My goals are to come in and make an impact to help this team get to the level I know we can be, stay healthy, and enjoy my final season,” Carrigan said.
“I’m not a very vocal person, so I’d say I lead more by example and get to know the girls so they’re comfortable,” Babbitt said. “I want to be someone they can reach out to and not be intimidated. All of us are very approachable. All of us have different personalities and a different perspective. All of the seniors have something to bring to the table.”
A big part of that leadership involves passing along the lessons they learned previously from older players in the past to the younger players of today, with each being told at some point to never give up.
“Preseason is hard. It’s hot outside, and games aren’t easy,” Lane said. “[I tell them] just keep going in the hard times and stay together as a family.”
“Just trust the process and always have fun with everything that we’re doing,” Jankowski said. “When things get tough, you just have to keep going and work at it. Adversity comes. Injuries happen. You just have to push yourself to keep going. You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
“The biggest thing I have had to learn is managing emotions on the field,” McCaskill said. “If I could have known [as a freshman] what I know now, I could have done a lot better with leading on the field.”
“Slow things down and think about things more,” Conklin added.
“Things aren’t going to go your way all of the time,” Carrigan said. “When those challenges do come, just put them in perspective and enjoy all of the little moments.”
“The jump from high school to college is huge,” Babbitt said. “We’ve been trying to brace them for that. Just trust the process.”
More than living up to just what was accomplished last year, the seniors take responsibility for continuing to grow what previous classes have built.
“A big thing we talk about in this program is legacy and leaving the program better than you found it,” Lane said. “It’s been an honor to make it to the Elite Eight twice since we’ve been here, but I know that going out for our last year, we want to go even farther. Every year an SEC Championship and making it far in NCAAs is the standard now. It’s expected.”
“The girls ahead of us started the legacy from 20 years ago,” Babbitt said. “It’s not a certain class where it’s only their legacy. Throughout, they’ve set an atmosphere that you want to uphold. Being positive and hard-working, that is the legacy that is this program.”
The 2017 season kicks off against Central Florida on Friday at 7 p.m. at Stone Stadium.
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