COLUMBIA, S.C. (BVM) — Shelley and Jamie Smith are a pair on the field and off. Last season, the married couple led the South Carolina Gamecock women’s soccer team on a surprising run to the Elite Eight before being eliminated.
Shelley and Jamie were coaching for different schools in the northeast prior to their arrival at South Carolina. Jamie coached men and Shelley women, leading to busy schedules that made it difficult for the pair to see each other.
“Being in different places, we’re also on different schedules, so we weren’t seeing a whole lot of each other, you know, we were both young and busy and we were still playing too,” Jamie said. “But then as we progressed in our relationship and after we got married, we were like, if we’re gonna have kids, we need to figure something out.”
A solution presented itself when the South Carolina job opened up. After interviewing with a few teams, the couple decided the opportunity to coach together for the Gamecocks was the right move for them.
“They welcomed both of us, and so we decided it would be a good opportunity to try to both stay in coaching,” Shelley said. “It was either see each other all the time and work together or never see each other.”
Twenty-two years later, with Shelley as the head coach and Jamie as the associate coach, the couple turned a program that had never qualified for a Sweet 16 into a team that regularly qualifies for the NCAA Tournament.
The team started its 2021 season strong. Five games in, the team was undefeated. The Gamecocks won their first four SEC games and were on track to compete in a tight race for the league title. However, the team followed that with a four-game winless streak that put it out of contention.
“They had a little bit of a rough patch where over the course of 10 days, I think we dropped two games that cost us the league, and that was difficult for them cuz they felt like they were playing well enough to win the league, and then all of a sudden it was gone, but that’s how tight it was,” Jamie said.
The team would need to refocus and pull themselves together if they wanted to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Shelley and Jamie’s connection off the field makes working through problems like this easier. Shelley said having Jamie around makes it easier to delegate certain tasks that any other assistant usually wouldn’t do.
“We share a lot of duties, and I think we make it work because we are basically more of a team, and so everything we do we’re kind of doing together,” Shelley said. “Jamie has more responsibility over video review and all that, cuz he loves to do that… but the coaching, the recruiting, a lot of those things, we’re in it together.”
Coaching together brings the best out of Shelley and Jamie. For Jamie, he said Shelley keeps him balanced and allows him to focus on his strengths as a coach while minimizing his weaknesses. Shelley feels Jamie helps her point out the little things and keep the team disciplined.
“He is very detail-oriented, and I think he has a great ability to demand more outta somebody,” Shelley said. “Making sure the players understand the little things that we talk about, picking up after yourself, keeping things neat and making sure you’re on time and those little pieces, He’s really good about sticking to and, and not wavering.”
Their partnership is one of the reasons the Gamecocks were able to turn its season around and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. It all started with beating women’s soccer’s biggest powerhouse.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have won 21 of 40 NCAA soccer tournaments. The program had never lost a game in the first round until the Gamecocks came to town.
In a defensive battle, neither team found the back of the net in the first half. The game seemed destined to go into overtime. Then in the 81st minute, South Carolina’s graduate student midfielder Lauren Chang passed the ball upfield to graduate student forward Luciana Zullo, who scored the game-winning goal.
“The training was sharp, the conversations were right, the mindset was proper, I think everything they were set up for is exactly what happened on that day, and it was not a fluke,” Jamie said. “It was a great day, but surprised, I don’t think so, because that’s not how they think.”
The Gamecocks rode that momentum for the rest of the tournament. They defeated Hofstra 3-0 in their next game and followed that up with another shutout against Penn State 2-0. In three games, the Gamecocks outscored their opponents 6-0.
“We turned some things around and figured out how to win in the postseason, and it takes a lot of maturity and team camaraderie really to stay together and wanna be playing, and being disappointed with some results, but wanting to make up for it and not wanting just the season to be over,” Shelley said. “They really wanted to push and prove themselves, and so I was excited for them to see their hard work rewarded, and they proved that they were better than they had shown during the season,”
The run came to a halt when the team met BYU in the elite eight. The South Carolina defense failed to stop BYU from scoring, leading to a 4-1 loss and the end of the team’s season.
Being married coaches, it’s hard for Shelley and Jamie to separate home life and work life. A coach’s job is demanding and requires constant effort. However, Shelley makes sure there is time for each other and their two sons.
“Our two boys have heard more about soccer and recruiting and the team than probably they would ever like to because I can’t help it, but Shelley does a good job of making sure that when we’re at home, it’s about the boys or whatever we’re doing family-wise,” Jamie said. “She does a good job to have a work-life balance and is a good mom that way, too, and so I’m thankful for that because otherwise, I would probably forget about a lot of that stuff.”
The early offseason gives them the opportunity to connect with their kids more and go on vacations. Once recruiting starts to heat up, things become busy again, but not too busy to not enjoy time together as a family.
“We’re definitely trying to spend time with them while they’re still around, being 16 and 18, that’s important, and getting out and seeing friends and family, that’s something that we can do,” Shelley said. “Now we’ve hit recruiting times, so it gets really busy and camps and all that, but it’s part of the job, and we enjoy it, and you find times around all that to make some time outside of soccer.”
The couple will continue to search for that work-life balance as they prepare for next season. Shelley and Jamie are both optimistic that next year’s team will add another chapter to their journey together.
“There’s some things that the older kids feel like is unfinished for them and they’ve been close, but they need to crank it up a little bit to get there, and with that kind of that attitude and that hunger, I think you add in a talented young freshman group that’s joining, we’re excited about that,” Jamie said. “I think they have the makings to be a special group in the fall, but you know, a lot of work goes into that on the field, in the locker room, so it’s all to be determined.”