- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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University of South Carolina senior defender Blakely Mattern grew up in the shadow of the ACC, a league long the gold standard of women's college soccer. A native of Greenville, S.C., she attended soccer camps at nearby Clemson and watched from the stands as some of the game's premier programs came through to play the Tigers in conference rivalries. The daughter of a North Carolina graduate, she idolized iconic Tar Heels such as Kristine Lilly and Cindy Parlow.
Yet as the years and months of Mattern's own college career shorten to weeks and days, she finds herself one of the leaders of a team doing its part to erase the aura of SEC soccer inferiority that left even a girl from Greenville essentially unaware of the program an hour and a half down the road in Columbia until she visited as a high school junior.
"After I came on my visit, I didn't go many other places at all; I just knew I wanted to come here," Mattern said. "I knew they'd underachieved as a program because when I met [coach Shelley Smith and associate coach Jamie Smith], I mean, they were great coaches and great people. And I knew that they were a talented team; they just hadn't been stacking up on the wins. But I knew they had really good potential for a program, and I knew they were headed in the right direction.
"That was one of the main reasons I came here; I wanted to be a part of building a program."
Mattern could be forgiven for having initially overlooked the Gamecocks. Hardly an old soul at 21 years old, she's nevertheless five years older than women's soccer in the SEC and seven years older than the program of which she's now a part. The University of Florida carved out a measure of instant credibility for the conference when it won the national championship in 1998. But the stereotype, fair or not, of a league that relied too heavily on athleticism and direct, unrefined soccer at the expense of technical ability was only compounded by what otherwise became annual postseason disappointments -- SEC teams are just 44-53-8 all time in the NCAA tournament, including a 25-42-6 record for teams other than the Gators.
For its part, South Carolina had just one NCAA tournament appearance, a first-round loss, when the husband and wife Smiths arrived in 2001. And while the two New England natives took an immediate liking to Columbia and its distinct charms, there was no such assimilation when it came to their preferred on-field philosophy, one of possession-oriented, technical soccer.
"That's what we incorporated from when we got here and we've been able to improve the athleticism of our team to compete in the SEC and still stick to that style," Shelley Smith said. "I think, initially, we weren't as fast. We worked hard, but it was just our athleticism wasn't there. I thought we did a good job to possess the ball and keep the ball, but a lot of times we were getting beat by teams that just -- they were putting balls in our box, they were outmuscling us.
"Their ability to run through the box and finish, or our inability to run through the box and run hard and be a physical team, stopped us from scoring goals and keeping the ball. And at times, we were playing weaker teams, technically, but they had an advantage when it came down to putting balls in the 18. And that is a big difference in winning and losing."
A 5-foot-9 center back with both technical skills and the physical presence to change a game in the air, Mattern is soccer evolution in action. The 2007 SEC Defensive Player of the Year is what the future holds for Columbia as the area grows ever more sophisticated in the sport. The current player pool for the United States national team includes just one player who hails from exclusively SEC territory -- Alabaman Cat Whitehill (and she, of course, starred collegiately in the ACC at North Carolina). A decade from now, that won't be the case.
For the 11-0-1 Gamecocks, the present isn't a bad place to be, though. The back line of Mattern, Brittiny Rhoades, Sam Diaz-Matosas, Ellen Fahey and goalkeeper Mollie Patton returned intact this season and has allowed just three goals in 12 games. And in sophomore forward Kayla Grimsley, who leads the team with seven goals and is on pace to become just the fifth player in program history to score double-digit goals in a season, there is the kind of offensive presence needed to take the next step after first-round exits in the past two NCAA tournaments.
"Oh my god, that makes our lives so much easier," Mattern said of Grimsley. "That's something we haven't had in at least my first two years until she got here and we started to grow with her. We were not able to score for some reason; it was like we were keeping other teams from scoring but we never blew anybody out and it was always close. That puts that much more pressure on the defense and everything gets even more magnified back there because you know you're not going to be able to score that many goals, so you have to keep the ball out of the back of the net. This year, that hasn't been the case at all."
With road trips remaining to Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee, work remains. And as Mattern noted, nobody on the roster has forgotten last season, when a 1-3-1 close to the regular season led to first-round exits in both the SEC tournament -- when they outshot Georgia 18-3 but lost 2-1 -- and the NCAA tournament -- when a 2-1 lead with 12 minutes to play turned into a 3-2 overtime defeat. But ultimately, like its league, South Carolina appears here to stay.
"I think we struggled for a long time to get much respect," Smith said. "A couple of years ago, if we made a run in the beginning of the year, it would be overlooked. And I think it's been nice after having two years where we've made the NCAAs, that now, hey, this team is pretty strong. When we win games, it's because we're a good team."
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.