COLUMBIA, SC - Kayla Grimsley has worked her entire life towards being the best that she can be on the soccer pitch. The South Carolina women's soccer sophomore was a top 75 recruit coming out of George W. Jenkins High School in Lakeland, FL, and she was a three-time Florida high school Player of the Year, yet the accolades often seemed to go unnoticed to the youth star after not being selected for the Florida Olympic Development Team for the first time until the age of 15 and not making it to the national team squads during her youth career.
However, the determination in improving her game outweighed her early heartaches, and the All-SEC player earned her first invitation to the United States U20 National Team camp that was held March 14-20 in Gainesville, FL. The Gamecock impressed well enough at the camp to earn an invitation to the second training camp that will be held in mid-April in Carson, CA.
"It was nothing like I've ever experienced to be honest," Grimsley said of her week of training with U20 national team coach Jillian Ellis. "The transition from high school to club soccer to college soccer is a big difference. When you come from college to the U20 national team, it's an even bigger difference. It's high-speed intensity all the time, 24-7."
Grimsley knows a thing about high-speed intensity. After signing to play for coach Shelley Smith at the University of South Carolina, the 5'4" forward dazzled fans and opposing teams with her expansive skill controlling the ball. Her knack for getting the ball into the goal was even more impressive. As a freshman, Grimsley scored eight goals to go with a freshman record six assists for 22 points, earning second team All-SEC honors in the process.
As an encore in 2009, Grimsley had one of the top all-around performances in Gamecock history as a sophomore. A first-team All- SEC selection, she became just the fifth player at South Carolina to hit double-digit goals in a season and finished with 13 goals and seven assists for 33 points. She finished first in the SEC in goals, second in points and fifth in assists, while coming just one point short of setting the South Carolina single-season record. Grimsley started the season with a record nine-match scoring streak. It was this type of production that Smith and Associate Head Coach Jamie Smith expected after signing Grimsley in 2008.
"I credit (making the U20 camp) to Jamie and Shelley," Grimsley said. "(They) both had really high expectations for me. After my freshman year I did pretty well, but I don't think I did up to the standards of a national team. Coming into this year Jamie and Shelley sat me down and said, ‘You know this is your year. You have a lot to prove and a lot of people to prove it to, so just go out and do what we know you can do.' After having a pretty successful year and us as a team getting exposed, it opened a lot of people's minds to my name as well as my school's name. Jamie was in their faces calling them all the time saying, ‘If you just get her in and let her play, you'll see.' I got a phone call a couple of days before spring break that said ‘we're inviting you, can you come, can you not'? I said absolutely."
Once given the opportunity, Grimsley immediately impressed Ellis. The current head coach for national power UCLA, Ellis never saw Grimsley play before the training camp, but the coach noticed her knack for scoring and slotted Grimsley as an attacking midfielder during the camp. Grimsley credited the laid-back nature of the national team coach as one of the reasons she was able to put together a strong performance.
"She wants to see who you are (rather than) who they want you to be," Grimsley said of Ellis. "She has a different mindset than most of the coaches. She understands the game really well. She just let me play. She put me in the front, let me play and let me expose myself to her. Her being a west coast coach, to see me (in the past) would have been a little difficult, but after she saw me we had a conversation and she said it's about time I've seen you."
The team played four games throughout the week while preparing to settle on a team for the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup that will be held in Germany this summer. Grimsley earned a start against Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league team the Atlanta Beat and also saw action in a 3-0 win against the University of Florida and a 2-2 draw against the Boston Breakers of the WPS. In her experience she was able to evaluate her own game and pick up pointers that she has already taken back to her South Carolina teammates that are currently at the mid-point of its spring exhibition season.
"I learned a lot as a person and as a player," Grimsley said of her time at the camp. "As a player I learned that (the national team coaches) don't really take into affect the amount of mistakes you make but the severity of them. They understand that you're going to make mistakes in the game, and it's how you react to making those mistakes. I learned that it's not always about score, score, score, score, score all the time. It's about reevaluating the situation and starting over. I learned I don't have to do so much. I can just calm down and feed off balls to other people and let it happen."
A minor setback the second day of the camp almost derailed the opportunity for a player that so desperately wanted to display her abilities. After years of making the state ODP squad as a youth in Florida but not being asked to participate in the youth national teams, Grimsley's chances of eventually wearing the red, white and blue seemed bleak after she injured her ankle, causing her to sit out the first few days. It was the same type of injury that threatened to delay her collegiate career when she entered the 2008 preseason camp in Columbia as a freshman with a sprained ankle. But much like Grimsley's determination allowed her to make it onto the field in the 2008 season opener, she also fought and made it back with enough time to impress Ellis enough to be invited back in April.
And the first thought that crossed Grimsley's mind after learning she was one step closer to her dream of playing for Team USA?
"The first word I thought of was "finally" to be honest," Grimsley recalled. "I go to all these things and the coaches say ‘you impressed me, you did this and that' and they give me one or two things to work on, and then I never hear from them again. I was just hoping that wouldn't happen again this time. Jill (Ellis) sat me down at the last day of camp and said there are two things I need from a player: one, for you to gel with the team, and two, for you to impress me. She looked at me and said we want you to come to L.A. in April."
First things first, Grimsley reported back to Columbia to continue taking classes and working out with her teammates. After initially making the first call to Gainesville, Grimsley only informed her coaches and roommates, but it wasn't long before the entire team was aware and began sending her words of encouragement.
As the Gamecocks continue their spring season, Grimsley continues to train and work on the aspects of her game that Ellis mentioned in their meeting at the conclusion of the camp. She immediately began working with Smith on her long range shooting, and strength and conditioning coach Andrea Tyndall put together a training regiment to prepare Grimsley for a fitness test she will have to pass the second day she makes it to the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The hard work has already been relevant with the Gamecocks earning exhibition victories against conference rivals Georgia and Tennessee in her first games back with her teammates.
"(The national team camp) was a good learning experience to help myself get better as a player and also bring some things back to the team and help us as a team," Grimsley said. "(Getting invited back) was a big relief … I knew I had it in me, and I'm finally glad that people are starting to see it."