First Carolina-Clemson Clash of 08-09 Tonight

The 2008 South Carolina men's soccer team that takes the field to open its season with archrival Clemson tonight will feature many of the same standouts that finished 11-6-2 (4-2-2) last year and fourth in the Conference USC. Soccer coach Mark Berson sat down with GamecockAnthem.com to discuss the narrow defeats of last season and the hope this season brings.

If you were looking for a common theme to last year's season the one thing that would stand out are the narrow losses to quality opponents that South Carolina's young team experienced. Berson's Gamecocks started off the season with a thrilling 1-0 double overtime victory over Clemson in Clemson, but came up just short in one goal losses to C-USA foes Tulsa and SMU.

Not surprisingly South Carolina was picked to finish third in the conference by the Conference USA coaches behind those two programs. Berson says that is a fair judgment of his team in the talent-rich C-USA.

"In 2005 we won the championship of Conference USA, in 2006 SMU won it, and it 2007 Tulsa won it," Berson said. "So that [ranking] is very normal. I think that those are three really quality programs on a national level and we're going to expect to go toe-to-toe with them each year."

Berson should have the experience and depth needed to do just that. The Gamecocks return 10 of 11 starters and 19 of 27 lettermen. Berson says that experience should pay dividends in many ways.

"The experience that we had last year was very important with the young players learning what college soccer is all about," Berson said. "We have some good depth and that's going to be important. I think that the most important thing for us this year is that we do have a lot of good depth, and we have a lot of guys that can contribute. We have a lot of good players that are going to get better as the season goes on, because we're still going to be young at the end of this year. But it's a good base for us to build on."

That base of talent is led by former C-USA freshman of the year award winners junior midfielder Jeff Scannella and sophomore goaltender Jimmy Maurer. Starting every game as a freshman last season Maurer compiled a .788 save percentage and 1.08 goals per game average as the Gamecocks' goaltender. Maurer has been named to the coaches' pre-season All-Conference team. Berson says the now-experienced goaltender has matured and is ready to take that next step as a second-year player.

"I don't think there's any question that he's really done a great job in the offseason," Berson said. "He put on about eight pounds. The guys have worked hard in the weight room; they're getting stronger. I think Jimmy has done a great job. He's very dedicated. He studies the game; he studies film. He does everything he needs to do to get better. He's got a great head on his shoulders and is a great competitor."

Scannella, who led the team last year with seven goals and 17 points, was named, along with junior Mark Wiltse, one of the team's two captains. Berson says Scannella has always been a great player, but has moved into more of a leadership role this year.

"Jeff and Mark Wiltse both are juniors, both have been all-conference players for us, and they both have been great leaders for us in the spring and then this year they were voted as our captains," Berson said. "They've both done a real good job." Berson says that just because Scannella and Wiltse are the "captains" that doesn't mean they are the only players capable of being leaders on this year's team. He expects younger players to step up when their number is called.

"I think leadership is such an important factor with any team. Not only does it come from the captains, but it also comes from within the group, within the other players. There are a number of players on this team that have supported us and supported our leaders also, so that comes from within. I think it's a good group."

To say it's a good group may be an understatement. Berson has coached for 30 years at South Carolina and has obviously seen teams of many types and skill levels come and go. He believes this team may be as talented as any team he has ever coached.

"I would say particularly in terms of depth, in terms of talent, we're as good as we've been in a long, long time. And especially in terms of depth. I think that's going to be the key for us," Berson said. "I think that we've been successful winning championships here, but now we're in a position where we have some depth and hopefully we can make a good run this year and in the future."

Berson will get to test that talent and depth early as the Gamecocks will play host to Clemson tonight. The annual battle has traditionally been a close affair with national appeal. Berson has seen 30 years of the South Carolina/Clemson rivalry and says it's always a special occasion.

"It's a huge game. It's a game that our players and fans point to every year. The other thing that makes it special is year-in and year-out the two teams have been nationally very, very strong. It's a game that everyone around the country in soccer coaching looks at to see how that game goes. That's a compliment to the two schools and the two programs…You have this game, a lot of emotion, it's always exciting and I know we'll have a huge crowd here (today). It should be good."

The Gamecocks and Tigers will kick off tonight at 7 p.m. at Stone Stadium.

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