By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, S.C. – That South Carolina’s rise to collegiate soccer’s elite and the career of Blakely Mattern in a Gamecock uniform happened concurrently was no coincidence.
Mattern, a native of Simpsonville, S.C., who led the state in goals scored (39) her senior season at JL Mann High School, was looking for the opportunity to remain close to home and, at the same time, help build a program.
“When I came on my visit here, I just felt right away that there was something different about this place, from the team to the school to the soccer, in terms of the way [South Carolina head coach] Shelley [Smith] and [associate head coach] Jamie [Smith] ran the program and their vision for it. The fact that the program wasn’t necessarily where it is today, I knew I could come in and have the chance to build a program and make something happen. I wanted to help make a difference.”
It just so happened that South Carolina coach Shelley Smith thought the conditions were right to take her program to the next level. She sold Mattern on a clearly defined vision of success.
“We had a program that hadn’t been very successful in the SEC and we knew with a couple of additions like Blakely, we could turn things around,” Smith said. “A piece we were missing was her defense; with her and a couple of others in her class, we knew we had some players that could help us continue to grow as a program. We wanted to continue to work hard to make sure she had a successful career.”
The vision was one that Mattern was confident she could help bring to reality.
“I could definitely tell that the program was going to go up,” Mattern said. “I came in with a good class and the class before me was a really good class, so I could tell that they were slowly putting together classes of not necessarily just good players but good people of character and that the program was going to grow. Their vision was to be the best and compete for championships, which they told me on the visit. They saw me be a part of that and helping them get there. I wanted to be part of the first championship class at South Carolina.”
What Mattern was able to help South Carolina do was nothing short of remarkable. The year before she arrived in Columbia, the Gamecocks posted a 6-12-0 overall record and were last in the Southeastern Conference with a 2-9-0 league tally. As a senior in 2009, Blakely led her team to a 19-4-2 record, a 7-3-1 conference mark and the Gamecocks captured the school’s first-ever SEC Tournament Championship.
“One of the reasons I came was to help make a difference and to help build a program,” Mattern. “I was pleased with how we kept progressing and reaching new goals. Something we always discussed was being the first to do things. We were the first to make back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and the first to win the SEC Tournament.”
In Mattern’s rookie season, she was quickly initiated into South Carolina’s starting lineup and helped her squad post an 11-6-5 record. It was a five-win turnaround from the previous season and the school’s first winning campaign since 2003.
“Shelley and Jamie made it clear from the beginning that they needed me to be a leader, that I needed to step up and grow up quickly in the back line, especially as a defender,” Mattern said. “I did the best I could immediately and it was learn as I go, but I was able to transition. I knew I needed to step up my game and I was willing to do whatever that took – time, commitment, practice. Anything I could do for the team, I did.”
Mattern proved to be the perfect leader for a program that was constantly raising the bar.
“She led by example and she was always very positive but, at the same time, she was very determined on the field,” Smith said. “She is going to demand of herself and everyone around her to be at their best, but she was also extremely kind and well respected. When you heard her talking on the field, you knew that she was pushing you because it meant so much to her. People responded well to the way she held them accountable and also, by her actions and the way she trained every day, pushed herself to be better.”
The Gamecocks knew they had made strides in Mattern’s first season, but the real turning point came in the first match of her sophomore campaign, playing on the road at No. 1 and perennial power North Carolina. And South Carolina came away with the victory.
“If I could put my finger on a specific moment in time, I will definitely have to say the opening game of the season in my sophomore year was something I will never forget,” Mattern said. “At that point, North Carolina had never been beaten at home in a season opener. It was something where we said ‘Okay, this is for real and we have promise in our program. We can compete with anyone and keep working to get there.’ It was a huge stepping stone for our program to say that we could beat the top team in women’s soccer.”
That 2007 season, South Carolina finished with a 14-6-3 overall record and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Mattern was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. A year later, the Gamecocks made their second consecutive postseason appearance and charted an 11-7-4 tally.
By Mattern’s senor season of 2009, the Gamecocks went 19-4-2 and claimed the SEC Tournament title for the first time in program history. That year, Mattern was named a First-Team NSCAA All-American and her team advanced to the NCAA Third Round.
“It was one of the greatest feelings in the world and definitely in my life so far,” Matter said. “My class, when we came in, immediately our goal was an SEC Championship and it didn’t happen the first three years. I could tell we were getting closer and closer, and the goal remained the same. In the regular season, after losing three games and dropping the regular-season title in the last few games was heartbreaking. I went into the tournament knowing that was it and I wanted to leave everything on the field. In that moment, when we won the game, it was the best feeling in the world. I accomplished my goals and, in my senior year, it was a storybook ending.”
For Smith, the win was equally gratifying, as it was the culmination of the turnaround of South Carolina soccer and a lot of hard work and sacrifice by, especially, her senior class.
“I remember thinking during that game, we were down a goal late into the game and Blakely actually combined to score in the last few minutes of the game with Kayla Grimsley, they were two extremely good players for us,” Smith said. “I remember thinking that I could just see the excitement and I was thankful that the seniors could continue playing. Coming out of high school, those seniors may not have been the most highly touted recruits that you see, but they all became as good in the conference as anyone else by their senior year.”
While Mattern’s play was one of the primary catalysts behind the rise of the Gamecock program, her accomplishments away from the soccer field were equally impressive.
Mattern was the 2009 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year for her sport, was an SEC McWhorter Award winner, was a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award and a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American, to name just a few of the academic honors she received.
“It took a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice,” Mattern said. “I spent a lot of time in our academic center studying, going to extra sessions for school and doing all the things I needed to do as a student-athlete to succeed. I had to sacrifice a lot. I just took school as another competition. I was receiving an education at one of the top universities in the country and I wanted to take advantage of that, soak it in and do the best that I could. I took a lot of pride in being a Gamecock and a student-athletes, and I wanted to represent not only women’s soccer, but the university the best that I could.”
It was the emphasis on well-rounded excellence that Mattern’s parents, Christopher and Cindy, impressed upon her from an early age that fueled her desire for scholastic success.
“It was never that they forced it on me, they just wanted me to reach my potential in everything and not settle for less than I could do,” Mattern said. “They’re both very competitive people; my mom played softball at North Carolina. Both just instilled in me a desire to succeed and be the best person I could be. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to do well in school and on the field.”
Mattern has continued her soccer career following graduation and played in The Netherlands before sustaining an ACL injury in April. She is spending this season as a volunteer assistant coach at her alma mater.
“I had surgery and am four months into my rehab,” Mattern said. “I have been volunteer coaching. I am in the office every day, doing whatever they need me to do and I’m out on the field when I can be. I will be here through the end of the fall and I do hope to play again professionally somewhere if I can recover fully from my knee injury. In the meantime, I am loving and soaking up every minute of being back here and being around the soccer team.”
Smith has enjoyed watching Mattern progressing into a coach this season and understands well the change of perspective necessary to transition from the field to the bench.
“She is young and she has been taking in as much as she can about the coaching side of things,” Smith said. “It has been a transition for her and she’s still a player. I remember that feeling coming out and it’s sometimes hard to transition into that coach’s role on the sideline. She is trying to learn as much as she can as a coaching figure, but also preparing to play again. She has seen both sides of the game, she’s very bright and reads the game well, so I know she’ll be a tremendous coach. Plus, she has the personality to lead others and be well-liked and supported by anyone she meets.”
In addition to her volunteer duties with the Gamecocks, Mattern has been coaching a youth team, whose roster includes Smith’s oldest son, Braden.
“She is already working with a youth team, so she’s getting some coaching responsibilities and she’s actually coaching our oldest son, who is eight at the moment,” Smith said. “It has been nice to see her take over and do some sessions and, she’s been like a big sister to my kids. It means a lot to her to be out there and give back, but also she loves our boys and loves working with Braden and the others. She has all the tools to be a tremendous coach.”
That’s a good thing because, while Mattern looks forward to continuing her playing career as long as possible, she is also very interested in pursuing a career in coaching.
“At this point, I’d love to do college coaching, at least for a while,” Mattern said. “I’ve been a volunteer here in a couple of stints and it has really instilled a desire in me to be a coach and to be in this environment. It has been a wonderful experience and I hope, when I hang up my cleats for the last time, that I can potentially get a job with a college soccer program and see where it goes from there. I love working with people, being outside and being involved at such a crucial time in a girl’s life. As of right now, that’s definitely the career path I’m looking to take.”
When Mattern looks into the future, a bright future in coaching stares back at her. When she looks back at the past, she finds great satisfaction in what she and her teammates were able to accomplish at South Carolina.
“It’s crazy when you look back on how much we’ve grown; just the entire character of the program has just grown so much,” Mattern said. “My class especially just didn’t want to accept losing. We put in a lot of extra time on the field to get better every day. There is a shift where girls are not just satisfied being here. Sometimes, once girls get to a program, they have a scholarship and they are just going through the motions. We weren’t about that. We wanted to do something special and that’s still going on here.”
Speaking of special, that’s exactly how Smith describes Mattern, the driven leader who helped her coach’s vision for a championship program come to fruition.
“She was one of those dream players to coach; one of those who has their priorities perfectly in line,” Smith said. “She was committed to her academics and her athletics, so she excelled in the classroom and on the field. Plus, she was a tremendous player to be around, so coachable, had a great personality and was a good teammate. She was all the things that you want in a student-athlete.”