ORLANDO – Whether speaking in terms of collegiate or professional athletic careers, such endeavors are fleeting in comparison to other undertakings. While most other areas of achievement are measured in decades, the unit oft used in sports is years. For college athletes, they know going in they’ll get four years of competition, a bit more if they fall victim to the proverbial injury bug.
This reality means that programs continually have to bring in new talent and make adjustments lest they fall behind. Fail to recruit and coach properly, and any process made by an exceptional class will be washed away like a sand castle at high tide. Triumphing over this unending cycle more often than not in the college game is the standard bearer of a quality program.
Coming into 2017, the South Carolina Gamecocks, long known for its organized and well-disciplined defense, faced a considerable challenge – replacing three fourths of its record setting backline from a season ago. It’s probably worth noting that one of those departures, Kaleigh Kurtz, was a MAC Hermann semifinalist and the SEC’s Defender of the Year in 2016. Despite its “newness,” the South Carolina defense have to date matched that record-setting 2016 back four in goals against average (.41).
How did South Carolina manage to maintain its hallmark stingy defense despite the turnover, which included both of its starting center backs? While it would be wrong to say a there’s a singular answer that solves this question, a large piece of this puzzle is sophomore center back Grace Fisk.
“Grace has really been a huge part of our defense all season long,” head coach Shelley Smith said about the SEC Defender of the Year. “She came in from the start and helped establish that back line and really fills in anything that might leak through. She’s very calm in the back. So being able to have her this season has been instrumental in having the defensive prowess we’ve had all season long.”
Fisk, who transferred from Penn State ahead of the 2017 season, has been pivotal for the Gamecocks. Perhaps what makes her and the team’s success at the back more remarkable is that she missed part of the preseason and the first week of the season as the English international represented her country in the U-19 EUROs. As any soccer aficionado knows, chemistry and learning tendencies are important to the formation of a stalwart defense.
“Grace came in with Jackie Schaefer as a freshman to fill huge shoes, and they’ve done that,” Smith said. “I’m really proud of what they’ve done and how they’ve worked together and believed in each other and supported each other through this.”
Smith also credited the only returning starter captain, Anna Conklin, who transitioned to left back a season ago after seeing time in the Gamecocks midfield the prior two seasons. Conklin not only embraced her new position on the field but became one of the best outside backs in the conference as was noted when she was selected by SEC coaches for preseason honors. Rounding out the foursome is sophomore Tatumn Milazzo, who saw key minutes off the bench for the Gamecocks as a freshman.
Behind that strong defense is keeper Mikayla Krzeczowski, who had big shoes of her own to fill in 2016 when she took over for Gamecocks great Sabrina D’Angelo, who now plies her trade in the NWSL. The sophomore hasn’t had to make a lot of saves, averaging just over two a game, but she does do the things that don’t typically draw notice.
“When Mikayla Krzeczowski’s been asked to make a save, she has, and that’s what you want in a good goalkeeper,” Smith said. “She’s also vocal and organizes, plays with confidence, and players in front of her play with confidence.”
As is often the case in the game, the Gamecocks defense doesn’t start with its back four but rather its offensive corps. It’s here where senior Savannah McCaskill, one of the most feared attackers in the collegiate game, defends as tenaciously as she attacks.
While her reign of terror is nearing complete, sophomore Elexa Bahr has emerged as a dangerous scoring threat in her own right this season. Bahr, who has eight goals on the year, looks poised to perhaps become the offensive leader for the Gamecocks next season.
“Elexa has stepped up huge for us this year,” Smith said. “Credit to her. It’s an adjustment when you get here as a freshman and I think last year she had that learning curve and we knew she had potential, and then this year she’s shown me what she can do… I feel with this kind of season she’s, had she’ll continue to grow and be that much better come next fall.”
And so the cycle continues.