USC wins sixth straight season opener

The Trojans more than doubled the Aztecs’ score.

Senior and sophomore attackers Sophia Donovan and Ella Heaney led the Trojans with four goals apiece in No. 13 USC’s 20-6 evasion of an unranked San Diego State in USC’s season opener.

The Trojans started the game rusty but wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, blazing out of the gate at halftime with three goals in just over the first three minutes. The Trojans went on a 9-0 scoring tear until Aztec junior midfielder Arielle Shahrabani found twine to end SDSU’s drought, closing the gap 14-6.

Senior midfielder Kelsey Huff and graduate attacker Izzy McMahon proved their veteran value to a reformed Trojan squad, scoring two goals each, both within the Trojans’ first five goals of the game. Huff added one assist, three ground balls and two draw controls.

USC entered the 2021 season ranked No. 13 in the IWLCA preseason coaches poll despite losing much of its 2020 senior class. All-American midfielder Kerrigan Miller and All-Pac-12 midfielder Kaeli Huff, sister of Kelsey Huff, decided to use their extra year of eligibility at No. 1 North Carolina and No. 6 Stony Brook, respectively.

While one sister left, another joined. Junior midfielder Michaela McMahon, Izzy’s sister, opened up her first Trojan campaign on the starting midfield line, with two goals and two assists.

USC’s first half was riddled with turnovers and lost ground balls, while draw controls proved to be a challenge for the Trojans, who struggled to consistently win in the circle last season. Even with the addition of graduate attacker Maddie McDaniel, who grabbed 13 draws on the day and 187 draws in 68 games for James Madison, USC’s inconsistency in the circle needs to improve if they want to control the pace of the game against top-ranked teams.

In the first 30 minutes, the defense, led by graduate crease defender Natalie Byrne, was still finding its rhythm, failing to get on the Aztecs’ hands. USC gave up 15 shots throughout the game and senior goalie Riley Hertford saved five of them.

USC’s endurance and athleticism sharpened its edge. Come the second half, the Aztecs fell behind the Trojans, who had a quicker first step off the draw and beat the Aztecs down both sides of the field on transition. On attack, USC took advantage of SDSU’s man-to-man defense with speedy one-v-ones and crafty draw-and-dumps.

With less than 13 minutes to play, Heaney met net off the feed from graduate attacker Sarah Larkin to put the Trojans up 10. The clock kept running and USC took home its first victory of the season.

Last season, USC went 6-0, beating three top-25 ranked teams, and was ranked seventh before the COVID-19 pandemic brought all college athletics to a halt. If USC wants to match its success from 2020, it will have to strategize on the draw and prevent unnecessary fouls — like Izzy McMahon’s recalled second-half goal because of an illegal stick pocket — and avoid slow starts.

USC plays at New Hampshire Feb. 24.