Even after starting the 2012 season 13-0, the best start in program history, the South Carolina volleyball team is still trying to reestablish themselves as a team to worry about. The young Gamecocks that feature just two seniors and seven true freshmen, started well with home wins against Georgia and LSU to begin conference play.
“We came out really well in our first SEC matches at home,” freshman outside hitter Darian Dozier said. “We stunned a lot of people by beating Georgia and especially LSU. They’re both really good in the conference. South Carolina hasn’t been known as being one of the better teams, so it was a really good way to start out the season and show people that we’re serious and they have to take us seriously as a team.”
For the two seniors, Christina Glover and Taylor Bruns, it was especially special for them after being through a few difficult years. Both signed to play for a team that has just finished with a 21-9 record and just missed the NCAA Tournament. After losing several key players, Carolina finished 14-16 in their freshman year before reaching a low-point with a 7-23 season in 2010 in coach Ben Somera’s final year in Columbia. Carolina rebounded with a 14-16 record last season in coach Scott Swanson’s first season at the helm, so it is fitting that two players that stuck with the program through some tough seasons to be a part of school history.
“That’s actually pretty cool,” Bruns said. “I’ve never heard someone actually say it so it’s kind of weird to hear, but definitely something I will remember and be able to brag about to my kids.”
As with everything, good things eventually come to an end, and that happened last Friday when Carolina suffered their first loss of the season against Auburn. Knowing the winning streak would eventually come to an end Bruns and the rest of the team just enjoyed every minute of it.
“It was a great start and we were excited about it,” Bruns said. “We knew it was going to end at some point but as the number kept growing after every match we got more excited and realized we could break a record. I think that motivated us, but we just came out every match ready to win.”
As the level of competition rose when conference play started, Carolina met the perfect storm against Auburn; good competition on their court. That proved to be a little too much for the inexperienced team to handle.
“It was really hard going to other people’s gyms because we’ve been so used to coming to our gym and having people cheering for us,” Dozier said. “We played two really good teams. It was my first SEC match away where people are cheering against us, but once we got the nerves out we played our game. I think that next time we go on the road, if we come out strong and play how we know how to play then we’ll be able to get those wins.”
Bruns, who has been through the battles of SEC play for four years, knew how the freshmen were going to feel in their first true road game.
“The more you do it, I don’t want to say it gets easier because it’s always hard, but it’s just more comfortable,” Bruns said. “You expect it to be as hard as it is, but when you’re a freshman you’re sort of shocked. Even as a sophomore you have to get used to it, but the older you get the more prepared you are.”
21st-ranked Tennessee added an extra challenge for Carolina as it was the biggest and best team the Gamecocks have played this season. The Gamecocks struggled early, but began to play better as the matched progressed and left feeling like they could compete with one of the top teams in the league.
“In the beginning we came out very timid and played kind of scared because Tennessee is really good,” Dozier said. “After a while we found ways around their bigger, more physical players. When they come here I’m sure we’re going to have a huge crowd and they’re not going to expect us to play like we did last weekend.”
Carolina will return home this weekend, but the opposition does not get any easier. Swanson believes that Florida will be the best team the Gamecocks face all season and it will take a flawless effort combined with some Gator miscues in order for his team to pull off a huge upset.
“We’re going to serve extremely tough (Friday),” Bruns said. “We’re going to take some more risks and we might miss on some serves, but it’s worth it to get them out of their system and ‘ace’ them and not let them run their offense the way they want to. That is a huge part of our game plan tomorrow. We know they’re going to get some straight-down kills and make some amazing blocks; they’re the 12th team in the country. We have to wipe those offs and just play our game and hopefully come out on top.”
When her career ends this season, Bruns will go down as one of the best setters in program history. She has led the Gamecocks in assists the past two years and will likely do so again this season as she continues to climb up the list for career assists at Carolina. Though she will not reach the top of the list and overtake Ashley Edlund’s 5,177 career assists, Bruns is currently seventh with 2,361 assists and will look to overtake sixth in the coming weeks. While she makes it look easy, Bruns credits her teammates for doing most of the work.
“It is very hard to set the same ball perfectly over and over again,” Bruns said. “Luckily I have great hitters so whenever I set the ball off they adjust and make it look perfect. Really it’s not as much what I’m doing as it is the passing is perfect and the hitters are so good. It’s the team that makes the setter look good. They make my job pretty easy.”
Bruns has enjoyed being one of the senior captains this season and credits the underclassmen for making her job as a captain easy.
“Honestly it’s been fun,” Bruns said. “We have a great freshman class and sophomore class. All of the underclassmen have really bought into the program, and it makes being a senior captain extremely easy when you have teammates that are ready to come in and do big things.”
Dozier is one of those freshmen that has come in and immediately bought into the system at Carolina. A second-team Under Armour High School All-American, the Maryland product earned the D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year award her senior season. She chose Carolina over the likes of Michigan and Oregon. Like many athletes across the board she credits her commitment to South Carolina to facilities and atmosphere.
“When I came on my first unofficial visit I really liked what the coaches were telling me about the program and where they wanted it to go,” Dozier said. “I loved the facilities and campus and I’ve always wanted to come to a big school with a big football program and everything.”