Despite losing six seniors, Gamecock volleyball in 2003 still has enough potential to exceed expectations and silence doubters. Six young talented players will join the current Gamecock lineup as Carolina accepts the challenge of building a new team. Head coach Kim Hudson Christopher is excited about the fall season and relishes the challenge.
“The newcomers will bring excitement and enthusiasm to our team. It will be a challenging year because of the difficult schedule and the new faces,” said Hudson Christopher. “It will be important that everyone understands that it is a long season and we will need to learn and improve with each competition.”
After posting a 22-7 overall record and a 14-2 SEC record, the best in school history, Hudson Christopher will look to junior All-SEC selection Niece Curry and sophomore Sarah Morgan to help initiate and guide the newcomers this season. Curry enters the season as Carolina’s all-time hitting leader with a .622 career percentage, while Morgan returns as the team’s top service ace leader.
Although there are new faces, the 2003 team maintains the ultimate Gamecock goal and that is to win championships. The winning attitudes are still prevalent and with the tough schedule and new team chemistry, the road for Carolina will be exciting.
“We keep building each year. We have not reached our ultimate goal of winning a championship so every year we continue building,” said Hudson Christopher. “We are starting the year with new players that will play a significant role. Because we are replacing starters, the challenges will be different but the goals will not change.”
One consistent factor for the 2003 team is the coaching staff. Last year was the first season for assistant Jason Hou to serve on the staff. This year, with more knowledge and experience of Carolina volleyball, he will continue to assist Hudson Christopher and assistant Trina Smith.
“This is one of our best staffs we have ever had at Carolina. I really enjoy this group of people. Trina Smith has put together the most athletic recruiting class we have had at Carolina and she has done that by using her ability to connect with young people,” said Hudson Christopher. “Jason adds great dimension to our staff by his knowledge, coaching style and loyalty to myself and the university. I respect his ability to train athletes. He has a positive, no nonsense style of training that the athletes respond well to. He treats all of the athletes the same and has high standards for each one.”
In addition to establishing new team chemistry, Carolina has one of its toughest schedules ever. To open the season, the Gamecocks travel to Los Angeles for the Southern California Tournament. There, Carolina will face NCAA defending champion, the USC Women of Troy, No. 9 Northern Iowa and a solid Ball State team. Next, the Gamecocks will host their first of two non-conference tournaments. Carolina will host No. 22 Michigan State and No. 12 North Carolina in the Carolina Classic, Sept. 5-7. The Tar Heels are the team that eliminated the Gamecocks from the NCAA tournament last year.
“We are playing tougher opponents this season so this team will be forced to come together early,” said Hudson Christopher. “Our players are young and I want them to be exposed to the best early.” Sandwiched between the Carolina Classic and the Notre Dame Tournament, the Carolina-Clemson match will be held Sept. 9 at Clemson. For the Notre Dame Tournament the Gamecocks travel to South Bend for the second time under Hudson Christopher. In addition to playing the host school, Carolina will face highly competitive Utah and Big 10 opponent Indiana.
The Gamecock Invitational is the second tournament Carolina will host and the three additional teams competing include No. 19 Santa Clara, Duke and George Washington. Following the tournament, Carolina heads into SEC play.
The Gamecocks open at LSU on Sept. 26. The remaining conference road matches include Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky. Carolina will host Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and LSU from the Western division and Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky from the East. For the first time since 1996, Columbia will serve as the host of the SEC Tournament.
The Gamecocks will continue to prepare for NCAA Tournament play as they play a final match in Chapel Hill against the Tar Heels and close out the 2003 regular season.
“This year’s schedule was designed to prepare us for conference play and give our athletes the opportunity to compete against the best in the country,” said Hudson Christopher. “It is both exciting and challenging, and our team will have to be fully prepared for every match. I am most excited about hosting some great teams and our community will be exposed to the best volleyball in the country.”
For the first time in four years, Coach Hudson Christopher will have a new setter on the court. It will be hard to replace former standout Megan Hosp who led the Gamecocks for the last four years, but freshmen Katelyn Panzau and Alexcis Thomson will share the roles of one of the most influential positions on the court.
“Katelyn and Lexie are young and will have a challenge in front of them everyday. They are both athletic and competitive,” said Hudson Christopher. “Katelyn’s commitment to being prepared will help the team. She is a tough young woman and not a typical freshman. Lexie has good size and is an exceptional athlete with a good mind for the game. She will adjust quickly to college life and training.”
Returning starter Sarah Morgan will lead the outside hitters position. Morgan is Carolina’s top returning service ace leader, and will be joined by redshirt freshman Lynae Vanden Hull and incoming freshmen Shonda Cole and Iris Santos. As in the setter position, these four have big shoes to fill since Carolina will be without four-time All-SEC selection Cally Plummer.
“We will rely on Sarah for her ball control and consistent play. She had a good spring and came back in good shape,” said Hudson Christopher. “Lynae also had a good spring. Her strength is in her attacking. She has a high contact point and has become more confident in her abilities.”
Mariana Branquinho suffered a back injury and had surgery on July 31.
“We will really miss Mariana,” commented Hudson Christopher. “She was a good volleyball player that we could rely on to provide consistency.”
The two new faces in the outside position are Cole and Santos. Cole, who possesses quick feet, a fast arm and stands 6-3, was the 2002 North Carolina Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year. Santos hails from the Dominican Republic and will provide solid fundamentals for the team.
“Shonda is athletic and has a huge ceiling as a player. She will need some time to develop and gain confidence, but I believe she could see playing time as the season progresses,” said Hudson Christopher. “Iris will provide passing and ball control for us on the outside. We will need her to solidify the outside defensively with her ball control.”
Carolina’s strongest returning position is the middle. All-SEC standout Niece Curry returns for her junior season after leading the Gamecocks in several categories last season.
“Niece has certainly been a force for the last two years,” said Hudson Christopher. “She has made good strides as a model for the younger players.”
Also returning is sophomore Nicole Miller. Miller saw limited action last season but has made strong improvements in preparation for the 2003 season.
“Nicole has made full recovery from shoulder surgery and has worked very hard to get in shape,” said Hudson Christopher. “Nicole understands the game and is a playmaker. She is not a player that will make many mistakes. She is an all around good player.”
Two newcomers at the middle position are transfer Lauren Ford and freshman Crystal Johnson. Ford transferred from Wisconsin and will be a sophomore.
“It will be exciting to work with Lauren. She is athletic and has fast feet. She has played at a high level and we will benefit from her playing experience,” said Hudson Christopher. “Crystal is also very athletic, but she will need time to train and learn the game.”
Sophomore Amy Benson is Carolina’s libero for the 2003 season. Benson split action at this position last year with senior Yajaira Cadet. With one year under her belt, Hudson Christopher is confident in her decision to place Benson here full-time.
“Amy is our libero and she will be heavily relied upon to pass and play defense. She came back in good shape and will be able to really make a difference this year.”