Ranked preseason by two national polls, Kim Christopher will put the most experienced team on the court in her nine-year stint as head coach of the Gamecock volleyball program in 2001. Volleyball magazine put USC at No. 18, while the AVCA/USA Today ranked the Gamecocks at No. 23. Being ranked preseason is a bonus, a first for the program, but this team isn’t quite ready to rest on those laurels. They have one goal in mind this year – win and take it to the next level.
“Being ranked in the pre-season polls for the first time in school history is special,” said Christopher (160-87 in her Gamecock career and 330-131 in her 14-year career). “It means the coaches and media around the country recognize us as a team that will compete nationally this year. It’s a tribute to the hard work our upperclassmen have put in over the past few years. But, we will build on this ranking,” continued Christopher. “Our goals this year are to win the SEC title and advance further in the NCAA Tournament. This team is committed to win in every facet of the game. They have a tremendous work ethic and are ready to take it to the next level.”
During two-a-days, Christopher noticed a hunger that she had not seen in the past years. “This team is more prepared mentally and physically than they have been before,” said Christopher. “They worked hard over the summer – lifting, conditioning and getting into the gym. They are older, stronger, wiser. We are already much better in the gym because they made the commitment to each other to be prepared from the beginning. This team enjoys being in top shape and spending time together. It was great seeing them here over the summer, working hard. You can see the strides various players have made because of the time they have committed.”
Coming off a 22-7 record in 2000, USC played in its fourth NCAA Tournament in six years, making the second round for the third time under Christopher. The team pulled down a final RPI ranking of No. 22 – its highest ever. Carolina was 12-2 in the SEC, its best record to date in the conference. Prior to the NCAA Tournament, USC dropped a 2-3 match to Georgia at the SEC Tournament, a time when the team could have hit rock bottom. “Georgia played so well at the tournament and the team wasn’t mentally prepared to play Georgia two times in five days. I believe the team was looking past Georgia to Florida, said Christopher. “We came back to Columbia, reevaluated and got back to work. I feel like that match was key and the payoff was how we competed at Nebraska. To be within two points of knocking off a team like Nebraska (lost 13-15 in the fifth game), a team that went on to win the NCAA title, it gave this team reason to work even harder during the off-season. We want to win that type of match this year.”
Experience is a key for the 2001 Gamecock team, a squad that returns every starter from 2000 and added quite a bit of muscle with redshirt Niece Curry, a Fab 50 middle blocker, and newcomer Yajaira Cadet, a member of the Dominican Republic national team. USC only lost three players from 2000 – both Mandy Quarterman and Sara Heri graduated while Julie Neiser transferred to Dayton.
USC returns three All-America candidates Cally Plummer, Berna Dwyer and Megan Hosp, who were named to the All-SEC first team and All-Region team. Sam Alban was named to the All-SEC second team.
Plummer, a Fab 50 All-America and two-time All-SEC first teamer, returns as one of the SEC’s most talented players. Plummer, who led the team in attacks, block assists and aces in 2000, once again was the SEC’s top server, hitting .54 aces per game. “Cally will be able to play on the right side and the left side,” said Christopher. “She is one of the top players in the SEC and in the Nebraska match last year, she showed she has what it takes to be one of the best players in the country.
Dwyer, who led the Gamecocks in kills, had the nation’s 13th best hitting percentage last year at .378. Dwyer was first-team All-SEC in 2000 after collecting second team honors in 1999 and is one of the conference’s best middle blockers. “Berna had to play all three offensive positions as a freshman due to injuries. She has the ability and the experience to play several positions and excel at each one,” said Christopher.
Hosp, the only setter on the All-SEC first team in 2000, led the team for the second straight year in digs and assists last year. A smart player, she has quarterbacked every point the past two seasons – a plus in Christopher’s eyes. “Megan is determined to be as good as she can be,” said Christopher. “She gets after it. She’s good at moving the ball around and putting hitters in a position to have a one-on-one situation.”
Picking up second team All-SEC honors in 2000, Alban returns at the middle blocker position, but played on the outside during the spring. The team leader in total blocks and block solos in 2000, Alban wants first team All-SEC honors in 2001 and has worked hard in the off-season to ensure this possibility. “Sam has a good nose for the ball and she pursues the ball with great intensity. We need to find the best place for her on the floor, whether it’s playing middle blocker or outside hitter,” said Christopher.
Christopher is also blessed with a strong senior class in OH Milica Perovic, MB Nia Mackie and Hammond School product DS Liz Price. All three bring something different to the team which will aid Carolina when putting different line-ups on the floor. Perovic was third on the team in digs in 2000 and has started a number of matches during her career. Mackie played, at times, like a butterfly in full bloom last season, knocking down 13 kills at Arkansas and 10 at Florida. Price has been steady as both a defensive specialist and as a server.
“Defensively, it’s a good class because Nia is one of our better blockers and is extremely quick,” said Christopher. “Liz and Milica both are two of our better passers and better defensive players. They also bring with them a sense of maturity. We will be looking for them to play consistently and provide stability.”
Outside hitter Nadia Sefferovich rounds out the junior class in dominant fashion. The transfer from Arizona was bothered by nagging injuries last year but is back in fine form. “Nadia has a high ceiling athletically and as a volleyball player,” said Christopher. “We will look to use her as a left and right side attacker and a primary passer. I expect this to be a break out year for her.”
While the team is junior-class heavy, there is only one sophomore: Mariana Branquinho, who hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Learning the American collegiate game last year, Branquinho is another player who will add quality depth and allow USC to play different line-ups. In her first match last year as a Gamecock, she hit .478 with 15 kills. “The transition of playing volleyball in Brazil to the United States is a difficult one,” said Christopher. “She came through the transition well in spring training and we continue to see a great deal of growth and development. I look for her to solidify the right side and bring some power and depth to the left side. I really like the way she is progressing.”
USC redshirted two players last year – MB Niece Curry and S Amy Pratt – both dynamic players with big personalities. Curry, coming from the same Michigan Dead Frogs program that produced the likes of Ashley Edlund, Plummer and Alban, was one of the team’s brightest spots in spring practice. “Last spring Niece was the best middle in the gym at many of the tournaments. She is going to have a real effect on our offense. She is big and quick,” said Christopher.
Pratt, the back-up setter to Hosp, has also grown up in her year as a redshirt. “She physically does some very good things and has a tremendous work ethic,” said Christopher. “She needs more experience running an offense. She will push Megan, which will make our team better both offensively and defensively.”
Christopher and her staff brought in two impact players this year: Yajaira Cadet and Bridget White. Cadet, a member of the Dominican Republic national team, has already played at a high level. An outside hitter, Christopher likes what she sees in the gym so far. “She is in transition, going from a serious competitive athlete to being a serious athlete who now has to handle a class load,” said Christopher. “That’s going to be the question mark with her. Athletically, she is very fast with a big jump. She also brings maturity and a strong conviction to her faith.”
Also playing at a high level is White, who played for the Sports Performance Club in Chicago. The club has won 34 AAU USA volleyball titles, produced more than 250 All-Americans and sent 208 seniors onto play collegiate volleyball. White is a true defensive specialist that plays with enthusiasm and understands the game. “Not too many balls hit the floor when she plays back court,” said Christopher. “She is also a very good serve receiver passer and server.”
USC will play three pre-season tournaments prior to starting SEC play with a bang on Sept. 21 when No. 9 Florida, the defending SEC Champions, plays in Columbia in front of a national television audience. Pre-season tournaments include the Sun Devil Challenge (Hofstra, No. 22 Santa Clara, Arizona State), Miami Classic (Purdue, Miami, Illinois State) and then the Carolina Classic (Michigan State, Wake Forest, Jacksonville State). USC will also travel to inter-state rival Clemson Sept. 12 . “The Clemson match is what real competitors love: lot of action and very passionate fans,” said Christopher. “It doesn’t matter which team has all the returners, who is ranked – it comes down to who is prepared and who wants to win the most.”
“The SEC will be tough this year,” said Christopher. “In the Eastern Division, I don’t see an easy win. Florida is always tough. Tennessee went to the NCAA Tournament last year. Georgia and Kentucky are much better and are always competitive. In the Western Division, Alabama, Arkansas and LSU should be battling each other for the title. Mississippi, Mississippi State and Auburn signed quality athletes that will add to their program as well.”
Taking each opponent one match at a time, USC hopes to take their preseason rankings to the top. “Over the years I have had the opportunity to coach some great people and players,” said Christopher. “The 2001 team is very special. We all know we are a part of something very unique. We have talented, motivated players in every position. The key will be how each one accepts their role. This team has shown signs of greatness already. I want to enjoy each day with this group because we have worked very hard to get where we are today.”
The rewards are limitless.
Building Blocks . . .
Since Coach Christopher took over the reigns in 1993, the following has happened at USC:
4 NCAA appearances, advancing to the second round three times
1 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year
9 All-Region players
11 All-SEC First Team players
12 All-SEC Second Team players
37 SEC Academic Honor Roll players
1 GTE Academic All-American
4 GTE Academic District III All-Americans
4 SEC All-Tournament team members