The South Carolina volleyball team is off to its best start in program history after last week’s 3-2 win over LSU. The Gamecocks now sit at 13-0 and 2-0 in conference play. The 13-0 start tops the 12-0 start the 1984 team had that won the school’s only conference championship (Metro) and its first of seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
Under second-year head coach Scott Swanson Carolina has vastly improved from its 14-16 record last season due to a mixture of player improvement and new talent coming onto campus.
“We had some players that improved,” Swanson said in an exclusive interview with Gamecock Anthem. “The freshman who were brand new last year and having to play for the first time in college got to experience that, and had a spring and summer at lifting. They came back more ready to play this year as sophomores. Our sophomores and juniors last year improved and got stronger, got a little bit better and gained more experience.”
This year’s team is a combination of young players and veteran players, and meshing together has been one of the keys to success.
“We’re a mixture of veteran and young players on the court,” Swanson said. “We are definitely better than last year because of how we play the game. Last year we were not very offensive or blocked very well. We worked on those things and became better at that this year. Volleyball is a game that if you pass the ball well and the setter gets options is kind of like the point guard or quarterback passing the ball. You get good results. When those two things are happening good things happen on the court and you can be more efficient.”
Much like the other sports, there is a lot more to stopping a team defensively than just keeping them from scoring. Being in position to block the ball and dig the spike is very important. Unlike the other sports, defense begins on the offensive side of the net.
“Defensively, if you serve tough and don’t let the other team pass well then you can block more balls and play better defense,” Swanson said. “You dig those balls and run them back in transition is what we call it. It’s one of those very technical team sports where you have to have three good touches in order to get a good result. That takes great focus and great energy to be able to do that for a long period of time. I think that are players are getting better and better at that and that’s why we’re winning matches.”
Carolina has been led offensively by Juliette Thévenin, who was named SEC Player of the Week earlier this week. The junior from Belgium leads the team with 184 kills, an average of just over four per set. Senior Taylor Bruns leads the team in assists with 384, nearly nine per set. It is that returning leadership, along with new talent, that has Carolina off to such a great start that will tie last year’s win total with its next win not even halfway through the season.
“Last year we doubled our win total from the previous year,” Swanson said. “We’re kind of making incremental steps in improvement and we’re recruiting at a high level and bringing in new players every year from here on out hopefully. We’re going to hopefully see more improvement in our athleticism, our height above the net, and just the speed at which we play the game have improved. It is mostly due to experience and better recruits coming in.”
The 2012 recruiting class was Swanson’s first recruiting class at Carolina. The seven players who signed included California natives Maddie Frome and Sarah Blomgren, as well as Texas native Jenna Allen.
“It was our first recruiting class,” Swanson said.”We were kind of late in the process so we had to work really hard to find some good athletes and volleyball players that were still available because of when we got here. We did that and found a couple of good outside hitters from California and a good one from Texas. We got some good players locally that walked on. It was a good class. They’re definitely a little bit more athletic in some ways than the previous classes and they jump a little bit higher. They may have played on some more competitive club teams throughout their career. They’ve seen a little bit higher level of volleyball at some times. They’re also having to adjust to the speed of the college game because it is a lot faster than club or high school. Our conference especially because of how athletic it is, in all sports, is kind of a big adjustment for most freshman when they step out on the court or field.”
Allen is the only freshman to play in every match, but Darian Dozier, a freshman from Maryland, is the other freshman with the most appearances, playing in 12 matches. Much like with football and basketball, the game begins to slow down as you gain experience.
“For us it’s all about learning what to look for,” Swanson said. “It’s all about how they use their eyes, and if they can use their eyes correctly they can use their athletic ability better. It’s about putting yourself in a good position and knowing what to expect. The more you go through it on a day-to-day basis and the more experience you get in a match is just like every other sport. It definitely does slow down because you know what to look at.”
While a majority of Carolina’s players are from outside the state (only three South Carolina natives), Swanson wants to recruit the state and will begin recruiting the state harder as he builds relationships with club and high school coaches, but it’s all about getting the best players he can regardless of where they are from.
“It’s a lot of both,” Swanson said. “We want to make sure we recruit the best players out of the southeast that we can, but we’re not limited by that. We can go just about anywhere and attract players to USC because it’s a great university and it is good weather and a great conference. We don’t have those limitations. We’re going to try and get the best players we can regardless of where they’re from as long as they have the grades and attitude and work ethic to be a great teammate.”
Of the first 13 matches, the last one was the most difficult for Carolina. For the first time all year the Gamecocks faced a 2-1 deficit and had to win the last two games to win the match. Carolina won the fourth set 25-18, the same margin as their first win in the match, and won a battle in the deciding set, 15-12. As Swanson’s team hits the road for the next two matches, winning that match after falling behind showed him a lot about the character of his team.
“I learned that they’re willing to fight and they have a little bit stronger mentality and confidence level than they had last year,” Swanson said. “Those situations didn’t always go well for us last year because we maybe hadn’t been tested enough or confident enough. I think we have a couple of seniors and juniors that have been there before and honestly I think they’re tired of losing. We changed the mentality and culture a little bit. We’re still seeking a little more consistency in how we do things, but it’s getting better and better.”
While the Gamecocks have faced George Mason on their home court, Friday and Sunday will be their first true road tests when the travel to Auburn and #22 Tennessee. In Friday’s match Carolina will be facing a Tiger team in a similar situation to that of the Gamecocks. Auburn is under the direction of second-year coach Rick Nold. Nold’s team is off to a 10-2 start and 1-1 in the SEC after a win over Mississippi State and loss to Texas A&M.
“Auburn is a rebuilding situation as well,” Swanson said. “Their coach got hired the same time I did. I think the cupboard was not bare when he walked in. I think he came into a team that was an NCAA team the year before and they have some pretty talented players. They probably had a little bit more left over than we did as far as experience and level of player. Last year we split with them and I think watching them on film we’re pretty evenly matched. It’s going to be a battle. Playing in their gym on their court is going to be an extra piece of adversity that we’re going to have to go through, but of the next three matches, it’s the most winnable for us.”
After Friday’s match Carolina will head north to Knoxville to take on the Lady Vols. Tennessee is 8-3 on the year and 1-1 in the SEC. The Vols have losses to then-#12 Florida State, BYU and Missouri, and has wins over ranked opponents of then-#10 Iowa State and then-#24 Colorado State. It’s going to take a great game from Carolina to beat the Lady Vols.
“Tennessee is just flat out bigger and better than us right now,” Swanson said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t beat them, but we’re going to have to bring a real special effort and keep them from doing what they want to do. The real key for us against teams like Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Missouri and all those established NCAA teams we have to play in a way where we make them play poorly. If we can get them out of what they feel comfortable doing and we can play focused enough to stay comfortable with what we’re doing then we have a good shot at being competitive. That’s when we’re going to find out what we’re made of.”
Though Carolina is off to such a great start, the expectations haven’t changed. Swanson looks for improvement out of his players on an individual basis, improvement as a team in wins-losses, and given a few upsets, a potential NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 2002.
“Our number one goal is to battle for every point, to be that team that is pesky and always keeps coming back at you,” Swanson said. “We want to be fighters that believe in themselves and fight for everything and we’re going to have to do that. We just want to keep improving; last year we got 14 wins and it would be great if we got 18 or even 20 wins this year. That helps recruiting and building a base of confidence in returning players. Ultimately we would love to get some significant wins in the conference and an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That’s going to take knocking off a Kentucky, an Arkansas, or maybe even a Florida or Tennessee home or away. It’s going to take splitting with one of those schools or maybe a couple to be considered. Our RPI right now is not going to be in the top 50. If we have some special upsets we have a shot at going to the tournament.”