The Lady Gamecocks came into the 2021 season with high hopes. A team returning 10 starters was projected to finish 3rd in the SEC regular season. The biggest problem the Gamecocks would have to solve was replacing 2020-2021 All-American Anna Patton. Patton has since moved on to play in England for Arsenal FC, which shows how imperative the captain was to this team.
However, with the absence of Patton, this team returns plenty of experience and talent. A midfield trio of Samantha Chang, Lauren Chang, and Claire Griffiths returns, giving hope to lock down the middle of the park allowing the Gamecocks to control most games.
Sophomore All-SEC Freshman striker Catherine Barry returns to lead the front line. Barry had 6 goals and 3 assists in her freshman campaign, giving hope that the Gamecocks have finally found their goal scoring striker.
Alongside Barry, the Gamecocks return two of the most experienced wingers in the SEC in Ryan Gerris and Luciana Zullo who have 41 goal contributions between the both of them over their careers at South Carolina.
The 2021 season had high expectations set for the Gamecocks. Let’s take a look and grade the Gamecocks in 5 categories; Offense, Defense, Midfield, SEC play, and non-conference play.
The best way to describe the Gamecocks offense in the 2021 season is “streaky”. The Gamecocks would go through a good string of games, then fall into a slump. This is caused by inconsistent finishing. In games the Gamecocks won they outscored opponents 37-8, dominating games from the front and the back. Whereas, in games the Gamecocks lost or tied they were outscored 16-4 over 8 games. This goes to show on an off night the Gamecocks would struggle to have consistency in the final third which is what brings home championships.
A big point of notice was a four game slump the Gamecocks entered in October. Over those four games the Gamecocks went 0-3-1 and were outscored 7-1. This accounts
for most of the blunders the Gamecocks had this season, taking them out of SEC regular season contention. If you were to take those four games out of the scope the Gamecocks had great offensive production. Catherine Barry outdid her freshman year numbers, boasting 8 goals and 3 assists, giving the Gamecocks hope that they’ve found a consistent forward they can rely on. Sophomore Corinna Zullo had a breakout season with the second highest goal tally with 5 goals, proving she will be a staple in the team next to Barry over the next two seasons.
Overall, the Gamecocks when hot could fight with anyone. But when you hit midseason and your body is fatigued can they push through and find those wins? This year they had a little slip up, which is allowed, but they’ll need to avoid this next season to get back to the top.
As mentioned before, the biggest piece to the puzzle for the Gamecocks was replacing center back Anna Patton. Patton was a captain and the heart of this team. It’s incredibly hard to fill the hole she left behind, but having two time All-SEC first team player Jyllissa Harris as your other center back is always helpful in a transition. Harris who originally was a midfielder for the Gamecocks moved to center back in the 2020 season replacing Grace Fisk who currently plays for West Ham in England. Harris was a force to be reckoned with at the back. Cleaning up attacks while also contributing 4 goals and 3 assists, which is insane!
Senior Sutton Jones took over as the second center back for the majority of the season starting 20 out of 22 games. Jones, who is not traditionally a center back, molded to the position well. Showing her quality on the ball as well as being a good partner with Harris defensively.
It always seems the Gamecocks have a stud in between the posts – Junior Heather Hinz is no exception to that. With 67 saves this season she kept the Gamecocks alive in many close games. This was her first season as the outright starter and I look forward to seeing what she can do in her senior season.
Overall the Gamecocks did as they were expected in the back. Allowing 24 goals is not great, however on average the girls only gave up 1.09 goals per game. A few odd games where opponents scored 3+ goals need to be limited going forward, but as a whole the defense always gave the offense a chance to go win the game. The
Gamecocks will have more holes to fill next year depending on which seniors will return next year. I expect the defense to come back stronger next year.
The Gamecocks midfield is the strongest unit on the pitch with high expectations for themselves each game. The trio of Samantha Chang, Lauren Chang, and Claire Griffiths started all 22 games with the exception of Griffiths who was out injured 1 game. 20 goal contributions came from those three which is a huge number coming out of the midfield. In past seasons and at times this season when goals were needed the midfield would step up and provide. Having great balance helps the Gamecocks to control the game and keep the team connected. They were strong in defending, as well as going forward to pushing the lines and creating havoc for defenses on the counter. Lauren Chang took a step back in goal production this season, but boasted a team high 10 assists from the All-SEC Second Team player.
This unit going forward will have some questions depending on who returns for another season, but looks hopeful even in the absence of the three previously mentioned. Junior Raine Coman appeared in 18 games and has shown growth each year and will be looking to make an impact in her senior season. As well as numerous freshmen looking to make their mark as well.
SEC Play: C+
The Gamecocks finished 4th overall in the SEC regular season which matched their 2020 finish. With a 6-3-1 record the Gamecocks found enough wins to be successful but dropped crucial games that had them fall short in the standings. Most of the Gamecocks conference wins came from bottom half SEC teams, with their highlight 3-2 win over #13 ranked Auburn.
On the flip side, the Gamecocks dropped games to both Tennessee (0-1) and Ole Miss (1-2) who both finished above the Gamecocks in the final standings. Both winnable games, Tennessee won with a 86th minute winner and Ole Miss scored their first goal within two minutes of kickoff. These games came in the October rough patch – if those games came at a different time maybe the Gamecocks pull out a win or tie. But these two games hurt and hold the Gamecocks back from a higher finish.
The Lady Gamecocks still fall under the Gamecock conspiracy of struggling in SEC tournament play, they are not immune! Auburn got revenge on the Gamecocks in the first round of the tournament winning 2-1 and sending the Gamecocks home early.
Overall SEC play was mediocre at best. Beating teams they should beat and losing toss ups. A top 4 finish is something to be proud of, but where this program is and the coaching this team has the Gamecocks should finish top 3 with the standings being pushed to the final games.
Non-Conference Play: A
The Gamecocks posted a 6-2 regular season non-conference record – starting off the season 6-0 and reaching top 10 in the national rankings. After their fast start to the schedule the ladies had a matchup with that team from the upstate. Fully expecting a good hard fought win, the Gamecocks fell flat on the day showing some signs of weakness in the attack and tactics put in place. A disappointing loss to Clemson followed by another loss to an ACC school in Virginia Tech. These losses hurt, brought some doubt about the team and halted an undefeated non-conference slate of games.
However, what looked like a mediocre season by the Gamecocks standards following the SEC tournament the Gamecocks got a berth into the NCAA tournament. Traveling to #10 UNC looked a daunting task, however the Gamecocks fought with their heart on their sleeve, held UNC to no goals, and Luciana Zullo poked a goal away in the 80th minute to keep their season alive. On to Southern California the girls went to beat Hofstra and Penn State to reach the quarterfinals for only the 5th time in school history. A loss in the quarterfinals to BYU sent the girls home with their heads held high, representing the fight and hard work this university thrives under.
The Final Verdict
The Gamecocks had a lot to prove this season with their returned experience. As in most soccer seasons teams go through ups and downs, and this team was no exception. A red hot start cooled down by Clemson and a SEC slate that slipped up in October is below expectation for this program. However, this team never gave up and always fought to the end. Coaches Shelly and Jamie Smith always pushed this team harder and in the end came through with a fantastic end to the season. The regular
season is always good to compete and win, but the real test to teams is in the NCAA tournament and this team got hot when it mattered.
If this squad can return some of its seniors (COVID season eligibility) they will be a force to be reckoned with next season. The ending of this season only builds confidence going into the offseason looking to bounce back and win some silverware. So keep an eye on the Lady Gamecocks as they look to build off this season filled with ups and downs. Go Cocks!