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Aug. 19, 2009

The middle is the only spot where the Gamecocks lost a starter, and it’s a big hole to fill. Belita Salters was the only Gamecock to earn All-SEC accolades last year after finishing in the top 20 nationally in hitting percentage. The new volunteer assistant coach took some of the offensive pressure off Kujundzic and the other outsides and became a dominant presence in the middle. But there is experience back at the position.

A two-year starter returns in Megan Laughlin. The 2007 SEC All-Freshman Team member will be looked upon to step into the top middle blocker spot this fall. She ranked second on the team last year with a .308 hitting percentage but saw her blocks per set fall to 0.58 from 0.92 as a rookie. Serving was also a big part of her game that dropped off last season, going from the team leader in aces to third last year. An injury sapped some of her strength and playing time as a sophomore, but she should be fully healthy as 2009 starts.

“Megan has the experience and skill to move into Belita’s role,” said head coach Ben Somera, “but she hasn’t had to do that yet. In a way, that is going to be a new role for her. The criticalness of her being on at a consistent basis is going to be a big part of how successful she is this season. She is not going to be sandwiched between two good attackers. She is going to be next to our setter and is really going to have to work to make herself a part of the offense in more situations. I have every confidence that she wants the ball and that she will figure out ways to be effective.”

The second middle spot will be between redshirt sophomore Tory Anderson and Teresa Stenlund. Stenlund has an advantage in training experience after Anderson missed the spring due to an illness. The Irvine, Calif., native had her redshirt taken off due to injuries that hit the squad late in the 2008 season, but when she played, she was an explosive attacker who hit at a .429 pace. After a spring and summer of training and improving her strength, she could be a step ahead of Anderson for that role. But Anderson will still be a factor, as she saw time in 19 matches as a redshirt freshman. The Jacksonville, Fla., native had better blocking numbers during her time on the court last year than Stenlund and showed flashes of her power during the year.

“The open position this spring was played by Teresa Stenlund,” Somera said. “She showed we could beat teams with her on the court in our spring dates, and she had some success last fall. If she can be a consistent trainer and continue to develop physically, we can create a role that she could fill.

“The key for both Tory and Teresa is consistently being ready to go. Can you practice day in and day out and go play the weekends and know that this is your role? Can you make the transition from being a backup to a possible starter? Whoever does that best between Teresa and Tory will probably end up starting. This preseason, we need someone to step up and take that position.”

Freshman Brandi Byers will also vie for time in the middle after earning second-team All-Gwinnett County accolades from the Gwinnett County (Ga.) Post last year.