In sports and life, transitions are one of the few constants. In soccer, the best players make the transition from rec league, to club and then on to to college. Each step comes with it’s own set of obstacles and challenges. Players declared for Friday’s NWSL Draft now face the anxiety of waiting to see if they’ll have the chance to transition to the professional level.
One player waiting for her shot is former South Carolina Gamecocks defender Taylor Leach. Since the Gamecocks’ season ended and finals were completed, she’s been back home in Ohio doing what she can to prepare for her next transition, her chance to continue playing the game she loves.
Since she’s been home she’s been focused on “trying to stay in shape for whatever is expected to come” through fitness training and weightlifting. Leach has also been playing pickup games with some nearby college players that are home for winter break.
The two-time first team All-SEC selection’s challenging experience at South Carolina as a redshirt freshman might be some of the most valuable lesson she’s had. Leach is the prototypical center back — tall strong, good in the air. There was just one problem when the draft prospect was ready for her first season in Columbia: The Gamecocks were all set on the backline.
Leach was asked by her coaches, Shelley and Jamie Smith, to play forward, a position she played very sparingly prior. Leach agreed, wanting to do anything she could to help her team.
“I gave everything I possible could I stayed after practices, had Jamie kind of help me how I could better myself when I was out there as a forward,” Leach recalled. Luckily, after that first season she was able to move back to her natural spot, where she started all but one game for the Gamecocks in her final three seasons.
This experience is something Leach will carry to the professional level if drafted Friday.
“I’ll do anything, extra practice, I’ll work my butt off,” she said. “I’ll do anything they ask me to do in order for the team to get better.”
In Friday’s draft, Leach will be representing a growing wave of elite players coming out of the SEC, a conference that is becoming more competitive with each passing season. This past fall, only the PAC-12 had more teams represented in the NCAA Tournament. The SEC looks primed to also be near the top of conferences represented among the draftees.
“It’s grown ever since my freshman year,” Leach explained, “Freshman year it was a solid, solid conference but as years have gone on players have gotten more experience and with that experience and their success brings in better players with recruiting classes keeps building and building. I’m excited to see more competitive it continues to get.”
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Depending on how the draft goes, Leach could be lining up alongside some of her former conference foes, an experience she’d welcome.
While Leach was at South Carolina, she and her teammates helped the program get better and reach new heights. This past season, the Gamecocks reached the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. Leach called the moment one of her proudest as a soccer player.
Another one of her proudest moments came just a few games prior when she played her last game on South Carolina’s home field. Eugene E. Stone III field draws some of the biggest crowds in NCAA women’s soccer. Leach calls herself “lucky and fortunate” to have played in front of thousands in college, something not a lot of peers have gotten to do.
“We had lost to Clemson previously in the beginning of the year in regular season play, 1-0 and we had the opportunity to draw them (in the first round),” she said. “We beat them in PKs. Our goalie, Sabrina D’Angelo came up big and saved two big PKs. It was my last game on that field in Columbia, S.C. … and it was just unreal, it was so unreal and emotional. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Leach hopes to experience another unforgettable moment this Friday during the NWSL Draft, when she hears her name called.
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