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Aug. 25, 2009

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Positional Outlook – Setters
Positional Outlook – Outside Hitters
Positional Outlook – Middle Blockers
Positional Outlook – Libero/Defensive Specialists

Poised to make noise again in the always-competitive Southeastern Conference, South Carolina brings back five starters and its top libero from a 2008 team that went 21-9, the first 20-win team in six years. Only four letterwinners depart from that squad, putting expectations higher in Ben Somera’s third season as head coach.

With nine letterwinners back on the court to go with two student-athletes who took redshirts in 2008 and four new freshmen, the Gamecocks are as deep as ever. That is by design. The Gamecocks’ depth across the board should be a strength, as every position has starters back with only one major role wide open coming into the fall.

“Our depth will make every practice session more competitive and will create an environment that identifies the toughest players,” said Somera. “Our freshmen are just as physical as their teammates in their positions, so we will be able to use their talents to elevate the play in our gym each day. But depth can’t replace experience, and we will need to stay healthy to maximize our potential this season.

“We will have a lot of athleticism in both the right and left outside hitting positions this fall, which is ideal for our style. We have three setters capable of running our offense at a high level and four middles who will continue to improve over the course of the season.”

However, Somera says the incumbents should not be too comfortable.

“We want to create an environment where you have to play your best to win your position,” remarked Somera. “We do not want anyone just gaining it by default. There is enough talent here now that if you are not playing at your best you could find yourself on the bench. I like that. It shows our staff and, more importantly, our team the value of focus and mental toughness. If you can’t buckle down, sacrifice and focus to win your spot in your own gym, why would you think you have done the work necessary to beat your opponents?”

Among the factors that kept South Carolina from returning to the NCAA Tournament a year ago was its lack of road wins over NCAA Tournament teams. The Gamecocks went 3-2 at home and 1-0 on neutral sites against squads that made last year’s 64-team draw, but, on the road, the team fell five times to tourney squads. That will be one focus for the coaching staff. Another has been handled already, as the schedule is notably tougher this season.

In the pre-conference season, South Carolina will again meet three programs that advanced into the NCAA Tournament. The difference will be the venues, as two of those matches will be on the road and the other comes in a neutral-site affair.

The SEC schedule is always tough, especially since the coaches voted to go to the double round robin format in 2006. The way the schedule lays out for the Carolina Gamecocks, there will be two grueling stretches. The beginning of October is tough, with the Garnet and Black facing all four of the league’s NCAA teams in eight days. Three of those matches are at home, starting with Tennessee on Friday, Oct. 2. Kentucky follows on Sunday, with the defending SEC champion Florida Gators coming to Columbia on Wednesday in a televised match. The stretch ends on Friday night in Baton Rouge with a match against 2008 SEC Western Division champ LSU.

But the end of the season could prove to be tougher. The four-match streak begins at home on Sunday Nov. 15 against the Bayou Bengals before the Gamecocks embark on a three-match road trip to end the regular season. They start it in Kentucky on Nov. 20 before heading south to Rocky Top for a Sunday afternoon affair against the Lady Vols. The regular season ends on the day after Thanksgiving when the Gamecocks and Gators meet again in Gainesville.

Somera and his staff believe this team can continue the strides made a season ago and press on toward the top of the SEC this season, therby contending for a bid into this season’s national championship tournament.