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September 19, 2013
Just a season after winning the SEC in 2011, the 2012 University of South Carolina women's soccer team struggled to a 7-10-4 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
Junior defender Christa Neary was part of both of those squads and now is a key player for a rejuvenated No. 8 South Carolina team that is undefeated (7-0-1) heading into the first game of SEC play tomorrow (Friday) night at Georgia. Just this past Sunday, Neary scored the game-winning goal, the second of her career, to keep the team unbeaten with a 1-0 victory over East Carolina. That performance earned her the SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
"I was happy about (the honor), but more happy that we came out with the win and continued our undefeated streak," said Neary, from West Deptford, N.J. "I've been playing well and I'm happy, and the team is playing well, and that makes me happy."
With two true freshmen in the starting lineup to aid a roster of returning players eager to put 2012 behind them, the Gamecocks already have notched impressive victories against No. 7 Duke (1-0) and at Clemson (2-1). Part of the reason for the team's success has been the performance of players such as Neary, who has been a starter in the past but who now comes in off the bench halfway through each half to provide a spark, fresh legs and apply pressure to opponents.
"Our team needs that, so it's good," Neary said of her role. "It helps the team that there's four or five of us that come in halfway through and the other team gets tired while we still have fresh legs."
Such depth is a blessing for head coach Shelley Smith, as is Neary's attitude.
"Christa is someone who was battling for a starting role this year," Smith said. "She's started on and off and has played quality minutes. That's the depth of our team this year, to have someone like Christa that changes the game when she comes in and gives us a lift.
"She's playing a different role and has handled it well and has been a huge help to how we're playing."
And how they're playing has the rest of the women's soccer world taking notice, especially the Duke and Clemson wins and a respectable draw (0-0) on the road at Boston University to keep the team's record unbeaten through eight non-conference matches.
"I believed we had (this start) in us," Smith said. "I saw the mentality we had coming into this season and was very happy given the preparation that the girls put forth this preseason to prepare.
"Obviously we weren't happy with the results (last season) and we still had quality players and a great group of girls who were disappointed and who did something about it. I don't know if I'd have said we'd be undefeated at this point, but I knew we'd be in better shape than we were last season and be a contender in the SEC."
For Neary, success is about remaining focused the rest of the way.
We worked hard in the off season and we worked hard in the summer," Neary said. "We've been doing really well out of conference and we hope to continue that in conference. We just have to stay humble and keep working hard."
That quest to repeat as overall SEC Champions and return to the NCAA Tournament begins tomorrow night in Athens. The team's next home match is Friday, Sept. 27, against Auburn at Stone Stadium at 7 p.m.
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