Thousands of fans follow the University of South Carolina women’s soccer team and keep up especially with the progress of recent alumna Savannah McCaskill as she proves herself worthy of playing in the 2019 FIFA World Cup in France and the 2020 Olympics in Japan.
Savannah, the only child of Tina and Greg McCaskill, came home from preschool one day and told her parents that she wanted to play soccer. Now 22 and near the top of her game, Savannah says their reaction was, “What do you mean that you want to play soccer?” Greg had played football at Thomas Sumter Academy in Sumter, and Tina was a cheerleader at Robert E. Lee Academy in Bishopville, so both had a bent toward athletics.
Yet, Tina says, “Greg and I knew nothing about soccer. When she was 4, she said she wanted to play soccer, and we said, ‘Well, okay.’” They called their local recreation department in Sumter County and learned that the age requirement for children’s soccer was 5 years, but one of the coaches who had a 4-year-old son had told the rec department that he would be happy to have other 4-year-olds on his team.
The family moved from Sumter to Chapin when Savannah was in seventh grade. She played on traveling teams and the Irmo High School girls’ soccer team before embarking on a standout college career at USC, earning three All-American honors and twice being named SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Her parents have rarely missed any of Savannah’s games, as her father flies his own plane to wherever she is.
“Flying is something I had wanted to do years and years ago and didn’t have time or resources,” Greg says. “When Savannah went to college, we were trying to figure out how we were going to get to her games, and I said, ‘Well shoot. I’ll just get my pilot’s license, and we’ll go.’ So that’s pretty much what prompted it. We only missed a couple of games in her college career.”
Currently playing professionally for New Jersey Sky Blue, one of nine clubs in the National Women’s Soccer League, Savannah regularly gets called up to train with the national team in California. The number two selection in the NWSL College Draft, Savannah was originally on the Boston Breakers’ roster until that team unexpectedly folded, leaving Savannah at the mercy of a disbursal draft. She moved to central New Jersey in February.
“It’s definitely not South Carolina,” Savannah says. “The girls on the team are great and have made the adjustment easier than it could have been. It was still snowing at that point.”
Savannah shares an apartment with another player; they train four days a week and play almost every weekend. Savannah likes living half an hour from the beach, a small consolation for not being able to come home to Lake Murray very often.
In addition to her being drafted by Boston, then reassigned to New Jersey, a lot happened while Savannah was training with the national team this past January. She had graduated in December from USC and was a finalist for several prestigious awards: the Class of 2018 Honda Sport Award for Soccer, the MAC Hermann trophy, and U.S. Soccer’s 2017 Young Female of the Year award. On Jan. 21 at training camp, she played in her first international match against Denmark and then went on to demonstrate her skills and determination with 45 minutes of playing time against France. Known for being a talented forward or striker, Savannah served as a midfielder for that game, garnering attention for her skills and teamwork.
“It was really exciting for me as mom, to be quite honest,” Tina says. “So much went on in January that had been on her bucket list of dreams and goals — it was exciting to see her hard work paying off.”
USC head soccer coach Shelley Smith, who worked with Savannah before college on region teams and in the Olympic Development Program, believes that what sets Savannah apart from other players is her ability to figure things out tactically so that she knows where and how to play a ball and can see how to set other players up to score. “I think she’s explosive,” she says. “She’s very strong and quick. You know, she has an extra gear when she wants to go at somebody, and it’s hard to defend against her or for someone to get away from her when she’s playing defense. She can keep up with the best. She’s also very technical and skilled along with that, so she can beat you on the dribbles and rush by you, but she’s got control of the ball.”
Shelley’s team went to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in 2017 — Savannah’s last season at USC. “I think she learned how to be someone who was marked and always had players and pressure on her,” she says, “and it opened up her teammates, and she found a way to make them better as she grew as a player.”
Local attorney Joel Smith coached Savannah, along with his daughter Grace, who is Savannah’s best friend, until the girls were teens. He is already making plans to be in France with his family for the World Cup knockout rounds.
Savannah remembers Joel as the kind of coach whose love of the game rubs off on his players. “You can have the worst practice of your life, but you’re still like, ‘I love this game!’ And I think that’s huge for coaches and for people who influence young soccer players,” Savannah says, “because it’s really about the love of the game. It’s not about fame or fortune when it comes to women’s soccer. You have to really love the game in order to continue to play it, and I think instilling that passion is something he did really well.”
Joel is proud of his protege, likening her vision of the field to the skill of an experienced chess player who can always see several moves ahead. “Savannah is incredible. She’s got unbelievable technical skills. She’s setting up move three by the pass she makes at move one,” Joel says. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of young girls who are stepping out on soccer fields every Saturday, and some of those girls get to play on their high school teams. Some of those girls get to play in college. Even fewer get a chance to put on an American jersey. And fewer than that actually get to play on the women’s national team in a match. One of the things incredible about Savannah is that she understands that she represents all of those little girls who walk out on the soccer field every Saturday.”
Getting to know Savannah
Q: What kind of things do you do for fun?
A: When I’m home, I love to go wake surfing, be on the boat, and enjoy the outdoors. I love to go hiking … honestly, anything outdoors. I love being outdoors.
Q: What do your parents do?
A: Mom was principal of Irmo Elementary School for six years. She recently got named as director of elementary schools for the district. My dad actually owns his own business. It’s still in Sumter, called SouthTech Machine.
Q: Where is your favorite place to vacation?
A: That’s a hard one. When I was in high school, my family used to go to Siesta Key Beach in Florida every summer, so that was a good one. I love to just kind of go get away, have some time on my own.
Q: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
A: I would definitely say I’m more of an extrovert. I like to joke and make people smile or laugh.
Q: What’s your favorite comfort food?
A: Definitely barbecue.
Q: What kind of sauce do you like?
A: Vinegar based. We used to do a pork roast, and we would always do the vinegar-based sauce. But I like both; I really don’t discriminate. I love barbecue, sweet tea, the whole shebang.
Q: Have you had a job outside of soccer?
A: The only other jobs that I’ve had are coaching soccer. I used to help out at the South Carolina camps every summer, and I also worked for the South Carolina Olympic Development Program. I grew up playing South Carolina ODP. They have camps and training occasionally throughout the year, and the big thing is region camp every year.
Q: Do you have any rituals when you play?
A: I had more when I was in college. We used to have team rituals: Panera on game days for that pre-game meal or certain songs we would listen to in the locker room. After leaving college and coming into a professional environment, I still have Panera for a pre-game meal for home games, but as far as the music and stuff, I’ve kind of tried to get away from it. The only thing that I still do is put my left cleat on before my right cleat. I don’t know where that came from or why I do that, but I still do, even subconsciously at this point.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do with your parents when you’re in Columbia?
A: Probably go to brunch. We kind of started the Sunday brunch tradition when I was in college, and we used to always go to DiPrato’s. Anytime I’m home now, we have to go to DiPrato’s.
Q: What do you usually order?
A: Their chocolate chip pancakes.
Q: Do you have any other favorite Columbia restaurants?
A: I also love to go to Cola’s for dinner. It’s really good, and I love their steak.
Q: Your new apartment, is it neat or messy?
A: It’s neat, currently.
Q: What was your first car?
A: It was an Infinity, I forget the number, but it was an Infinity.