Photo: University of South Carolina Athletics Media Relations North Gwinnett grad Danielle Au started all but two games for South Carolina as a sophomore last season and finished third on the team with 17 points.
Danielle Au was out of breath.
On the road at Boston University, Au had a bad case of nerves before her first collegiate game.
It's not like she hadn't been in pressure situations. Au was a star for perennially powerfully North Gwinnett in high school and played in the Olympic Development Program.
But this moment got to her.
"I think it was the first time I was ever out of breath," Au said. "It was all nerves."
She laughs about it now, two years and lots of big games later.
"It was good though," Au said. "I got better every single game."
The talented forward put a lot of pressure on herself as a freshman at the University of South Carolina.
"The way our school works is the best 11 players start," Au said. "So it's not really like you have to worry just about the upperclassmen. You have to compete with the freshmen, too, coming in.
"I wanted to put myself in the best position to have an opportunity to earn a spot. It was definitely different than what I experienced before. It was really intense. It's not just physical, it's mental, too."
Au started all 25 matches in 2010, setting a freshman record. But she went the first five games without getting any points.
As if that wasn't enough to think about, the sixth game was against heated in-state rival Clemson.
There were those nerves again.
"You prepare yourself to not mess up instead of enjoying the game," Au said.
The coaches sat her down that week and gave her a boost of encouragement.
"They said 'We know you can do this, we feel like you're just nervous and stuff,'" Au said. "They talked me through it and it was really nice what they did for me. I knew going into the Clemson game, I just wanted to have fun. And I did."
Au broke through before more than 3,000 fans at South Carolina, scoring her first goal in a 2-0 victory over the Tigers.
Even for someone who grew up in Georgia, away from the rivalry that fuels the Palmetto State, it didn't take any time for Au to acclimate to the atmosphere.
"It's definitely always there," she said with a laugh. "Our game had a record-breaking crowd. Even people who don't know anything about soccer come out. It's just such a huge rivalry.
"I enjoyed myself a lot more (in that game) and I just tried to carry that on for the rest of the season."
The next match, Au scored the game-winner in a double-overtime 1-0 victory over Furman. She was the first Gamecock to score a golden goal as a freshman.
Au finished with 13 points, among the top 10 season totals for a frosh in South Carolina history, and earned all-SEC freshman team honors. Three of her five goals were game-winners, including against UNC Greensboro in the first round of the NCAA playoffs just 58 seconds into the second half. Au was the first South Carolina freshman to score a goal in an NCAA match.
"We were lucky because we had 12 or 14 freshmen come in so we all learned together," she said.
But Au was one of only two who played and attrition has taken its toll.
"Half of them have left," Au said. "It is a huge commitment to play college soccer. It's basically your job for a while."
A lot of what helped Au make the adjustment to college athletics was the coaching she got while at North Gwinnett.
"I had great coaches growing up who made me mentally and physically strong." Au said. "There wasn't any real physical change as far as fitness and your strength. The skill improves, but not overbearingly. It was definitely more having to be mentally strong and emotionally strong.
"Because it does wear on you a lot. I've seen a lot of people leave who were amazing in high school. It is a very competitive place."
After working through the pressure she was putting on herself as a freshman, Au felt the push from external sources last season.
"Sophomore year was a little bit harder," she said. "We had a huge senior class that didn't what to lose. It was definitely more intense -- and I think I learned a lot more than my freshman year. I had a lot more pressure and a lot more responsibility. Freshman year we could be like, 'Oh, let's just have fun.'
"But it was great. We had an opportunity to win an SEC championship, which is really difficult. We had a great group of seniors."
Last season, Au started 21 of 23 matches as a forward and center midfielder. She finished third on the team with 17 points and continued to contribute with big goals.She started the season with a goal in the opener, a 4-0 rout of East Carolina, and was again clutch against Clemson. Au scored the game-winning goal to send more than 2,500 Tiger fans away disappointed. She had her first multi-goal game in a 4-1 defeat of Alabama and finished the weekend with six points after scoring a goal against No. 22 Auburn.
Two weeks later, Au collected game-winning goals in back-to-back victories against Arkansas and Florida. The wins, part of a stretch of eight straight for the Gamecocks, clinched the SEC regular season title.
"Looking back, I'm glad I had those two years. I feel like I can go through any pressure now," said Au, an international business major who is already back on campus in Columbia, S.C., after spending most of her summer doing a study abroad program in China.
This season, Au is again prepared to do whatever the team needs in order to win. She's been shuttled from position to position before and doesn't worry about where she plays. As long as she plays.
"They usually put me in a position where they think I'll have the most success (based on the opponent)," Au said. "They know I'm an attacking player so they want to put me in a situation that's best for the team."
With the big senior class departing and a new crop of freshmen coming in, the dynamic will be different this season.
"We're definitely going to need a lot of help from the freshmen because we lost at least five starters," Au said. "But we have a good program and everyone knows we work really hard. I know effort isn't going to be a problem.
"I hope the freshmen will know they can contribute and not to be so nervous."
Au knows about that from experience.