South Carolina opens the season tonight against College of Charleston with new faces - both on the field and on the coaching staff - but the expectations of a big season remain the same.
Junior forward Bradlee Baladez led the Gamecocks in goals last season
Head coach Mark Berson, who is beginning his 35th season with the Gamecocks, has led the program to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances after a four-year hiatus from the national stage.
The Gamecocks have been a fixture in the 48-team field being selected for the tournament on an average of two out of every three years but there was a lull in recent seasons.
Whether it was a rash of injuries or the players just weren’t good enough that stretch, the expectation of making the NCAA didn’t change. After stringing together some quality recruiting classes and building depth, the Gamecocks seem to have the program headed in the right direction again.
“Our expectations don’t really change. We expect every year to contend for the conference championship. We expect every year to go to the NCAA Tournament and to advance,” Berson said. “The level we want to play at doesn’t change. Last year, probably no year was more evident - we started 1-4-1 and the guys could have gotten down on themselves but they stuck to their guns. We just missed getting a national seed. I think that was a real turning point in our soccer program for this current group because they were at a key point of fight or flee and they fought. Not only did they fight, they were successful.”
South Carolina lost three key contributors - midfielders Vance Benson and Stephen Morrissey as well as defender Danny Cates - from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad, which was eliminated in the first round in penalty kicks by Wake Forest.
In 2010, the Gamecocks advanced to the Sweet 16 before being defeated by Michigan, which advanced all the way to the College Cup before losing in the semifinals.
Because of the recent run of success, the Gamecocks have a number of players who will take the field in tonight’s opener against the Cougars at 7 p.m. at Stone Stadium with a lot of experience in big games.
“Last two years, winning the regular season and conference championships and going to the NCAA Tournament, we have a core of guys who have won championships and been in the NCAA Tournament,” Berson said. “The expectations don’t change for us as a staff; it’s where we expect to be. It makes it easier when we have a core of guys who have been there.”
A quartet of fourth-year players - forward Mike Mangotic, defenders Kevin Stam and Eric Martinez and goalie Alex Long lead the charge from an experience standpoint. All four have been at least off-and-on starters throughout their entire careers.
South Carolina also has four juniors who have been a part of the team’s successes over the last two years but there are also high expectations from a group of underclassmen.
“We have a very good group of recruiting classes back-to-back that really helps in terms of our depth,” Berson said. “We have competition at every spot. From a team standpoint and a coaching standpoint, that’s probably the top factor you can have is competition. Guys know they’re competing every day but you also have depth. When you have injuries, you’re able to react. Those things are very big for us going into this year.”
South Carolina has a forward duo that includes Mangotic and All-Conference USA performer junior Bradlee Baladez, who led the team in goals last year and was tied for second in tallies his freshman season.
What makes the tandem so strong is they have different styles of play. Baladez is a bigger target with a great touch, strong one-on-one abilities and is a natural scorer. Mangotic is a hard-working, quick forward who makes great runs and put others in scoring positions.
“What we need Mike for is pace and the fact that he’s very different than Bradlee,” Berson said. “You want to have two forwards up there who are different. Wes Eads is a freshman with some very good qualities. Asa Kryst had a very good spring, so we have a number of guys who have kind of developed that can give us a counterpart to Bradlee.”
Berson has quite a few interchangeable parts in the midfield. A pair of players transferred after last season but All-Freshman stalwart Braeden Troyer leads a deep group that will probably be a work in progress throughout the early part of the season.
“Braeden Troyer was one of the outstanding players in Conference USA last year,” Berson said. “He also had a great spring. Nicklas Kivinen had a great spring. He didn’t have an outstanding fall, but was learning his way. Stephen Anderson has been below the radar, but has really come into his own. Those three guys right there give us a very good, capable midfield.
“But you also have Devin L'Amoreaux, Ryan Arambula, and a number of other guys I think can help us in those spots. That’s where the depth comes in. We have a number of guys who can compete at several spots. Several of those guys can go outside or play in the middle.”
The center back position may be the strongest on the team with Stam and Martinez anchoring the defense. Martinez, when healthy, has been a starter since the day he stepped onto campus. Stam has played a critical role since late in his freshman season.
Junior J.P. Rafferty is a two-year contributor at a variety of positions but now expects to hold down the right back position vacated by Cates. Redshirt freshman Dan Traxler is projected as the starting left back, which also could be a spot for Mangotic at times this year.
The battle between the pipes will be one to follow this season. Long, after spending two years behind Jimmy Mauer, played every meaningful minute at goalie in 2011. He struggled early in the year but improved as the season went along. Redshirt freshman Robert Beebe had a strong spring and could see action at times this year as well.
“Last year, (Long) came on and as the season went on, he just got better and better,” Berson said. “By the same respect, Robert Beebe redshirted last year and had a great spring. They’re great competitors, good goalkeepers, and have paid their dues. You want to see those guys be successful. It’s a coach’s dream to have that kind of ability at such a key area.”
Berson went on to say that who plays will come down to “who is performing the best.”
All of the players, not just the goalies, are going to have to perform at a high level this year in order to meet the yearly expectation of competing for the conference championship and making the NCAA Tournament. This year, the team returns a lot of experience and memories of two straight successful campaigns.
The journey to meeting those expectations begins tonight at 7 p.m. at The Graveyard against College of Charleston.
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