“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
— George Burns
Some little girls grow up watching their older sisters play soccer, and they want to play, too. Others play all different kinds of sports, but soccer is the one they keep coming back to, and they are hooked. They grew up watching videos of the ’99ers, as the 1999 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team is called, and soccer greats like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Carla Overbeck. As they decide where they want to play in college, they take a long, hard look at what each team and each school has to offer.
At the University of South Carolina, women’s soccer players are not just a number on a jersey or a position on the field. Together, they work hard to achieve their goals. Together they celebrate wins, together they learn from losses, together they tackle adversity, and together they succeed — not just on the soccer field, but in all areas of life.
Head women’s soccer coach Shelley Smith created this close-knit atmosphere when she arrived at the University of South Carolina 20 years ago. “It’s about attitude and commitment,” she says. “It takes dedication to deal with challenge and adversity.”
Being on a college team is certainly a time commitment. The student-athletes practice every day except Monday during fall’s competitive season. They play two games every week. All that togetherness and teamwork creates a special bond. “The team is really close-knit, like a family. They treat each other like family and enjoy being around each other. They meet challenges together and everyone is a part. The team is bigger than any individual.”
This philosophy led Claire Griffiths, a redshirt senior and first year law school student, to the team. “Playing at USC is so cool because everyone on the team is competitive, but it’s a positive environment,” Claire says. “Everyone is working to make each other better. They’re lifting one another up and working to be the best version of themselves.”
USC’s team concept begins with the coaching staff. After her own successful collegiate and semi-professional playing career, Shelley was an assistant coach at Dartmouth College and head coach at the University of Rhode Island, where she was the 1998 Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year, 2000 Division I Coach of the Year, and 2000 National Coach of the Year nominee. When she came to Columbia, USC got a “two-fer” in the form of Shelley’s husband and associate head coach Jamie Smith. Jamie likewise had a successful college playing career, as well as a professional one. Known as a shrewd evaluator of talent and a successful recruiter, he served as assistant coach at Brown University, Dartmouth, and the University of Vermont before coming to USC.
While some couples may not work well together, the Smiths balance each other, each bringing different things to the table. “Jamie and I have a great working relationship,” Shelley says. Asked who is the “heavy” of the two, Shelley laughs and says that Jamie is. “I’m quieter and less vocally demanding, but we both have the same message. We both expect the same things.” In addition to the Smiths, the staff includes Marnie Merritt, assistant coach; Stephanie Rosehart, athletic trainer; and Alex Buchman, strength and conditioning coach. While Shelley is the head coach, she is not just one person leading. “We all talk and do the job together. We respect each other’s roles and let each do their job,” Shelley says. “Our goal is to make our players the best they can be.”
Having married coaches is a huge draw to team members. “They treat us like we’re their kids,” says Hallie Meadows, a sophomore biological science major. “They want to know what kind of day I’m having. And even when I have a bad game, I know I’m still their ‘daughter.’ Being from a family of six and away from home, having them is big for me.”
Claire agrees, saying, “They bring us to their house, and their kids are involved in everything. Obviously, when you’re away from home and your parents can’t come to every game, you get homesick. The Smiths support you as a player and off the field, too.”
Redshirt senior and graduate student Lauren Chang feels the Smiths’ guidance has helped her grow into an adult and taught her important life lessons. “It’s the little things like making sure we clean up the visitor locker room when we’re on the road,” she says. “They really take an interest in helping you grow as a person.”
Shelley sees her family approach pay off on the playing field, where attitude and commitment prevail. “They learn a lot about playing on a team,” she says. “It takes dedication to deal with challenge and adversity. Treating everyone like family makes a huge difference to the success of the program.”
For the USC women’s soccer team, the team family sometimes overrides real family dynamics, like sisterly rivalry. A few years ago, USC played N.C. State, where Claire’s older sister, Paige, was on the soccer team. “I scored a goal in that game, and I was so excited,” says Claire. “But we lost. Afterward, a reporter asked me if I’d rather have scored the goal or won the game, and I said, ‘I’d rather we’d won!’”
Fall brings competitive play, when the Lady Gamecocks focus on winning one game at a time. “We strive to be our best on that day, to win that game,” says Shelley. “If we lose, we focus on what we need to do to be better. The ultimate goal is to be the best team we can at the end of the season.” For the team, losses are hard, but they also serve as a motivator. “This month, we are playing Tennessee and Georgia back to back, and we’re on a revenge tour,” says Lauren. “This past season we lost to both of them, and it really stung. We get an extra chance to right some wrongs.”
When Shelley first arrived at Carolina, the USC women’s soccer program had been to the SEC tournament twice and the NCAA Cup one time since the team was formed in 1995. Her first goal was to have the team appear in the SEC tournament. This goal was accomplished in short order, and the team won the SEC championship in 2009, 2016, and 2019. Shelley also wanted the team to play in the NCAA tournament. After their 2007 invitation, they have been to the NCAA tournament every year but one. They played in the quarter finals four times and in the semi-finals once.
Playing USC soccer gives players moments they will never forget. Choosing one favorite among so many is hard. For Hallie, it was playing Arkansas for the 2019 SEC Championship. “I left there realizing I’d just played the biggest game of my life, and it was the biggest win of my life,” she says. This game was also a favorite for Claire.
“The team really rallied. We hadn’t done as well against SEC opponents during the regular season, and one of our teammates, Tatumn Milazzo had torn her ACL. We hadn’t won the SEC championship in a few years, so we rallied around Tatumn, and we won.” For Lauren, it was the game against Clemson her sophomore year. “We played Clemson at Stone Stadium with a record 6,354 people in the stadium, plus crowds all along the fences outside,” she recalls. “I scored the winning goal, and to hear the roar of the crowd was just incredible. I’ll never forget it. To play in that kind of atmosphere was amazing.”
Team priorities divide neatly in the fall and spring seasons. In the fall, it is about winning games. After the thrill of competitive play, the spring brings time to develop individual players’ skills. “It is our job to make each player the best they can be,” says Shelley. Players who did not see as much field time during the competitive season get to play in the spring. Five days of play are allowed, when the Gamecocks might compete against two or three different colleges on the same day. Spring games are open to the public.
The USC women’s soccer team puts the same dedication and emphasis on their studies as they do their sport. The opportunity to have the best of both worlds is what drew Lauren to USC. “I liked that I didn’t have to settle when it came to academics or soccer. I was accepted to the Honors College, the nation’s top public honors college,” says Lauren, who is working on her master’s in business administration. “I could excel in the classroom as well as compete for soccer championships year in and year out.”
Hallie’s goal is to be an orthopedic surgeon, and Claire wants to practice law and become an advocate for children. These three are not the only players who excel in the classroom. Every year the women’s soccer team boasts a long list of SEC Academic Honor Roll recipients. This past year, the team had an astounding grade point average of 3.8. Shelley says, “Our players do a tremendous job representing the university, both on the field and in the classroom.”
In addition to playing soccer and concentrating on their studies, the players find time to give back. Shelley is proud of the way her team members serve the community. “They are wonderful role models and do a great job connecting with the local youth players at our camps and clinics,” she says. The women’s soccer team hosts a number of camps each year, and the players help. Youth camps include both day camps and residential camps. “Residential camp is always a lot of fun — they stay in the honors dorm with us,” says Claire.
ID camps are held for prospective players. Hallie loves watching the new possible recruits. At times, Claire has to know her limits and get out of the way. “I’m 5 foot 2 and was playing goalie with the kids. I was thinking, I’m not putting my hand in the way of that shot! They were blasting them in there,” she says with a laugh. Hallie agrees that camps are a lot of fun, but working with campers is also a lot of responsibility. “When we’re working with the younger kids, these girls look up to you and watch what you do and ask for your autograph,” she says. “It’s surreal that what you’re doing is bigger than you and bigger than the university — I’m at a loss for words to express it. It requires that I be the best I can be on and off the field. It’s pressure, but to me it’s so encouraging and uplifting.”
Clearly, the USC women’s soccer players take all their responsibilities very seriously but have fun doing it all, as a team and as a family. “It is rewarding to see them enjoy and not regret all the time they spend practicing and playing soccer,” says Shelley. “With each success comes higher expectations. They’ve come a long way and can compete with the best in the league.”
On behalf of her soccer family, Lauren has a message for their fans: “We are really excited to have people back at Stone Stadium. Tell the fans we missed them this past season. They give us an edge that helps us win.”