By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Determined.
That’s the single word that perhaps best describes South Carolina defender Taylor Leach. From battling through a season-ending injury before her freshman year in college to anchoring the top defense in the Southeastern Conference her junior year, it has all been possible due to Leach’s perseverance and drive to succeed.
“I think Taylor is probably one of the most competitive, hard-working athletes we’ve ever had,” said South Carolina’s 13th-year head coach Shelley Smith. “She gives 100 percent every time she’s on the field and you know what you’re going to get. She will sacrifice her body to save a goal, score a goal or win a tackle. She’s just tough and plays with all-out full heart every time she’s on the field.”
Growing up in Ohio, Leach was first exposed to soccer when a flyer that was sent home from her kindergarten class sparked her interest in the sport. While some may see playing high-level soccer as a job and a major-time commitment, for Leach, it has always been the constant in her life to which she could turn for solace.
“I played against boys and pretty much everyone growing up,” Leach said. “I’ve loved it ever since then. It has always been my escape to everything. If something went wrong, I knew that if I was playing soccer, everything was going to be fine. Soccer was always my outlet and it still is.”
The 5-foot-10 Leach tore her ACL following her freshman year at Anthony Wayne High School forcing her to miss her sophomore season. Regardless, she concluded her prep career as a two-time first-team all-district selection, a three-time first-team all-league selection and a two-time state champion.
It was that injury – and the subsequent recovery – early in her high school career that fueled Leach’s already fiery passion for soccer.
“When I went down with my first ACL injury and knew I was not going to play for six months, my whole world came tumbling down,” Leach said. “I knew I had a passion for the game and I knew I wanted to get back.
“It was right before recruiting time started,” Leach continued. “It was hard, but I just had that determination to get back because I knew I wanted to play college soccer. Especially after that injury, I really valued hard work and know what it was like to be on the absolute bottom and work my way up.”
Four weeks before Leach was to report to Columbia to begin training for her freshman season in 2010, she suffered another knee injury that would sideline her for her initial campaign with the Gamecocks. Having been through the situation before, Leach was confident she would return to the field once again.
“I think there are players who can be affected by a knee injury like Taylor’s where they just don’t know how to come back from that,” Smith said. “She had the kind of determination and work-ethic to push herself even more so fitness-wise and strength-wise coming back from that injury. It did take her out her freshman year, but it gave her a chance to work on her overall strength and fitness.”
The opportunity to observe the collegiate game from the sidelines helped prepare Leach to make an easy transition once she had recovered from her injury.
“When I was out, I was constantly watching and paying attention to the things both [South Carolina associate head coach] Jamie [Smith] and Shelley were doing, especially Jamie since he emphasizes defense often,” Leach said. “I wanted to make sure that I knew what I had to do so when I was called upon to be in there, I could contribute in a positive manner.”
Leach had fully recovered in time for the 2011 season, but it wasn’t easy to find a place on the field. South Carolina had a star-studded lineup that year that propelled it to one of the finest seasons in program history, culminating in the school’s first-ever SEC regular-season title. The Gamecocks’ roster featured the SEC Offensive Player of the Year in Kayla Grimsley and Sabrina D’Angelo at goalkeeper who was both the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and the SEC Freshman of the Year.
With no opening at center back – Leach’s natural position – Smith used her pupil as a reserve up front in 19 matches during the 2011 campaign.
“It was hard for Taylor to establish herself in her first year playing,” Smith said. “She came into a championship team with a lot of seniors, so she just came in to work whenever she could, wherever she could. Our center back position was pretty solid, so we used her more up top to give us a lift and put pressure on opponents defensively. She was winning balls in the midfield and really established herself coming into last year.”
It would have been easy for many players to be frustrated by the injury or the lack of playing time, or both. But not Leach, who knew that hard work and doing what her team asked of her would eventually spell success.
“After my injury, I knew it was going to be tough, but it had happened once before, so I knew what to expect,” Leach said. “It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to sit out and not play as much as I would like. But, looking back on it, it has all paid off.”
The 2012 season was Leach’s time to shine. Moving to center back, Leach started each of her team’s 21 matches on the season and played the second-most minutes (1,706) of anyone on her South Carolina squad.
She has been elected captain by her teammates, demonstrating her ability to lead and inspire her peers as they work to accomplish South Carolina’s team goals.
“It’s been an honor having my teammates nominate me for such a position,” Leach said. “It has truly motivated me to be that much better on the field, and be a motivator and encourager. I’ll be the first person to let someone know when they’re doing something wrong, but I promise I will be the first to congratulate them when they’re doing something right.”
Smith says that she has seen the example Leach sets manifest itself as a positive influence for her teammates in many ways.
“She comes to training and game days the same way,” Smith said. “She takes it seriously and she doesn’t want to let herself down by not showing up. She has shown that tremendous work rate on the field and she demands that of her teammates. When you see someone giving their all and asking their teammates to do that for them, she pushes her teammates to give that kind of effort.”
The statistics for South Carolina’s back line – led by Leach and D’Angelo – have been staggering in 2013. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in fewest goals allowed per game this season with a 0.56 mark. South Carolina has allowed just nine goals on the year and is the only SEC team currently to only give up single-digit goals on the campaign.
It seems as if there’s not much Leach wouldn’t do to help her team succeed.
“She scored a diving header to beat Florida in OT this year,” Smith said. “She drove through five Florida defenders around her to get the ball and put it to the far post. It was a great example of what she’s winning to do and is cable of doing to lift this team. I’m so glad she was rewarded with that play.”
Of all of the remarkable qualities that Leach brings to the soccer field, her consistency is one for which Smith has great appreciation.
It’s simply part of Leach’s makeup.
“It’s the type of competitive mentality that I’ve learned throughout the years of playing competitive soccer,” she said. “I need to perform as a leader and get my job done. When everyone does their jobs, it takes a lot of pressure off of other people. I have to go out and give it my absolute all. I may not always have the best day of soccer, but I work as hard as I can every day.”
It is an example that serves Smith’s team well and one she knows has allowed Leach the opportunity to maximize her talents.
“She shows what you need to do to commit to being a top-level athlete in the SEC,” Smith said. “All the things that she’s needed to do to be her best, she’s done that. She’s become the player that she had the potential to become. She’s reaching that and it’s been great to see.”