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Sept. 24, 2009

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Gamecocks return to the Volleyball Competition Facility this weekend to take on two more Southeastern Conference Western Division foes when Alabama and Mississippi State come to town. Friday’s contest against the Crimson Tide is set for 7 p.m. Gamecock fans that bring a recyclable plastic, paper or aluminum item will receive a free water bottles until supplies are exhausted. Sunday’s showdown against the Bulldogs has been moved to 3 p.m. to accomodate FS South. The Mississippi State match will cap South Carolina’s part in the SEC’s Together We “CAN” drive. Fans that bring a canned food item to the match for donation to the Harvest Hope Food Bank can get a ticket to the match for just $1, and the bank’s mascot Cool Can Sam will be in attendance as well. It’s also Dads & Daughters Day on Sunday, where photos of families can be taken in front of a South Carolina backdrop.

South Carolina, who split its opening weekend SEC games on the road, faces a 4-8 Alabama team that swept Georgia and Auburn last weekend in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Mississippi State enters the weekend with a 4-9 record and an 0-2 mark in SEC play.

Gamecocks Narrowly Miss 2008 NCAAs; Is 2009 The Year For The Return?
The 2008 South Carolina volleyball team made massive progress in returning the program to national prominence, compiling the first 20+ win campaign in six seasons. Five starters return from last year’s squad, but none have tasted postseason play of any sort. The squad hopes to end that streak in 2009.

South Carolina has already taken care of one of the knocks against from the NCAA Championship Selection Committee last year. The Gamecocks did not win a “big” road match a year ago, but the season-opener at Clemson proved South Carolina was ready to climb. Adding to that was the triumph at Rice. The pair of 3-2 victories on the road could be part of the résumé bullet points for the group to consider.

What A Way To Start
The Gamecocks stand at 9-2 on the season, an impressive start that compares with one-loss conference rivals Kentucky and Florida. And while good, it’s not the best in South Carolina history. That belongs to the 1983 squad that went 12-0 to start the season en route to a 34-4 overall mark. Those Gamecocks, however, missed the NCAA Tournament, when only 28 teams advanced into the field. The next year, South Carolina started 9-0 on its way to its first NCAA Tournament bid. The Gamecocks matched the 1992 and 1995 squads in going 7-0. That 1995 edition earned the program’s second NCAA bid. Here’s a list of the best starts in Gamecock Volleyball history in the SEC era.

Defensive Minded
South Carolina has been outstanding as a team defensively, as the Gamecocks rank fourth in the country with a 17.92 digs-per-set average. The squad claimed a 23-dig advantage in the win over Clemson, the largest margin of the season, while the team has won the digs battle in all but one match in 2009. Two Gamecocks are in the top 10 of the SEC in digs per set, as Sarah Cline and Hannah Lawing are the only teammates in the listing updated on Monday.

Last season, the Gamecocks finished second in the league in digs per set, leaping up from fifth in 2007. A lot of that credit went to the libero Cline, who anchored the backline most of the past two seasons.

Experiernce Back, Experience Packed
South Carolina returns five starters and its starting libero from the 2008 squad that finished with 21 wins, the first 20+ win season from a Gamecock club since 2002. While good, it is not far and above the best in the Southeastern Conference. While every SEC team lost at least one starter, there are five others that match the Gamecocks with five coming back. In fact, only one team, Mississippi, lists losing more than two starters.

But What A Void To Fill
The one starter not back was South Carolina’s lone representative on the All-SEC teams last year. Belita Salters was the first student-athlete since Shonda Cole in 2006 to capture first-team All-SEC volleyball accolades after leading the conference in hitting percentage. She leaves a big void in the middle that will be filled by either one of two sophomores (Tory Anderson and Teresa Stenlund) or a freshman (Brandi Byers), while junior Megan Laughlin will be leaned upon more heavily than before.

Overall, from the four letterwinners who did not return, the Gamecocks lost 30.3 percent of their kills, 31.6 percent of their total blocks and 21.9 percent of their digs. Nearly 70 percent of the kills and blocks are back, leading one to think that would be a lot. But that’s nothing compared to the 2008 squad, who returned 86 percent of its kills and 74 percent of its blocks, not to mention 94 percent in both assists and digs and 85 percent of its aces from the 2007 edition.

Is It That Simple? It Was Last Year
In 2008, the Gamecocks had a simple forumla for winning: have a higher hitting percentage than their foe. The Garnet and Black went 21-0 when it out-hit the opposition. The Gamecocks’ worst performance in a win was at Arkansas, when the squad hit .182. Carolina also went 19-0 when it had fewer hitting errors and 18-1 when it had more assists and more kills than the other side.

The Gamecocks have won the hitting battle eight times this season, with its record perfect in those outings.

SEC East Holds Home Court Advantage
While playing on the road is always tough, it gets even rougher when traveling to an SEC Eastern Division team’s gym. In the league last year, the home team went 62-48 overall (.563), while in 2007 the home team won 64 percent of their matches in league play. But in the East, the home team won 80 percent of its matches (40-10), compared to the West’s 22-38 (.367) mark. South Carolina was right in the line with its East cohorts, going 8-2 at the Volleyball Competition Facility in 2008.

The Gamecocks nearly broke a six-year losing streak in league play on the road, going 4-6. But that was a considerable improvement over 2003-07, when South Carolina won just nine road matches out of 43 tries. The Gamecocks went 1-1 on their first league trip of the year, falling at Arkansas in three before sweeping Ole Miss.

Cline Looking For Her Place In History
Senior libero Sarah Cline has become the vocal leader on the court for the Gamecocks the past two years while also leading the team in digs. A two-time ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District III selection by CoSIDA, the senior will attempt to become the first three-time honoree from CoSIDA in program history while also helping the squad improve on its second-place ranking in the SEC defensive statistical rankings.

The Rock Hill, S.C., product made the all-tournament team in each of the pre-conference season events, capturing the Gamecock Invitational’s most outstanding libero award as well. She’s recorded double-digit digs in every contest, leading South Carolina in the category eight times while adding five 20+ dig matches. She jumped from 11th on the career digs chart to fourth, passing three people in the first match of the year. She needs 24 digs to tie Amy Iannoccari for third all-time, while she’s solidly third on the digs-per-set chart.

Ending One Reign
When people across the country think of Southeastern Conference volleyball, the national media and fans always think of Florida, for good reason. The Gators have won a share of every conference title since the league’s expansion in 1991. In some statistical categories, they have ruled as well. But last season, South Carolina ended the longest of the Gators’ stat reigns, topping Florida in overall hitting percentage with a .259 mark, snapping the Gators’ nine-year streak. Last year’s Gamecock squad also finished first in assists and kills per set and second in digs per set.

South Carolina had been suffering through a low period in hitting efficiency during the mid part of the 2000’s. After hitting .279 in 2002, the second-best mark in program history, the squad had not gotten close to that over the next half decade, including hitting below .220 in 2006 and 2007.

Denson-Dorman In A Long Line Of Award-Winning Setters
Senior setter Bridget Denson-Dorman came to South Carolina after claiming two All-BIG EAST certificates during her time at Connecticut. Last season, she added an AVCA All-South Region Honorable Mention award to her case after helping guide the Gamecock offense to its highest hitting percentage since 2002. The Golden Valley, Minn., native joined Julie Morrison, Tammy Correll, Ashley Edlund and Megan Hosp as award-winning setters wearing the Garnet and Black. While she’d like to become the first Gamecock setter since Hosp to claim a spot on the All-SEC team, she more wants to earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament, something she hasn’t accomplished at either stop in her collegiate career.

Denson-Dorman picked up right where she left off last year, averaging 10.19 assists per set, just under her 2008 mark. She has contribed more by way of attacks, posting a 0.95 kill-per-set average, a higher rate than she had in 2008.

Kujundzic Continuing International Successes At South Carolina
International student-athletes have often found success at South Carolina, and Ivana Kujundzic continues that tradition. The Subotica, Serbia, native, who was the squad’s only Preseason All-SEC selection, has led the Gamecocks in kills per set for two years running, joining Canadian Lori Rowe (1983-86) as the only non-American to top the squad in consecutive seasons. Kujundzic held the longest current consecutive-sets streak until an injury dropped her out of the lineup to start the third set against No. 23 Wichita State, ending the string at 233 sets. Kujundzic also continues a stretch of 14 years for Carolina to have at least one international on the roster.

The senior outside hitter moved to 12th on the program’s all-time kills chart and needs 114 kills to move into the top 10. She also stands 11th in career kills per set (2.80) and ninth in attacks (2,575). It has yet to be determined when she will get to add to those numbers, as she injured an ankle during the Mizuno Invitational II. She did not travel last weekend, but she was cleared to take off the “boot” on Wednesday. She has not been cleared to practice as of this publication.

Lawing Breaks Out In Houston
After spending two years filling in as an attacker when injuries arose, Hannah Lawing has staked out a starting job as an outside hitter. During the first half of last season, she played exclusively on the back row. When her chance came up front, she stepped in and took hold of that position. She improved her kills-per-set average from 0.27 in the back to 2.30 while playing full rotations, finishing the year with a 1.30 mark. Her hitting percentage jumped from .049 as a freshman to .138 as a sophomore, including a .175 percentage during the final 15 matches of 2008 when pressed into full-court duty.

Lawing has tallied double-doubles in six matches this season, including during each match of the Big Orange Bash and the Mizuno Invitational II. She now has 14 career double-doubles, narrowly missing out on two during the Gamecock Invitational. The Marietta, Ga., native ranks fifth in the SEC in kills per set and seventh in digs per set, the only student-athlete in both listings.

The junior set a program high for the 25-point scoring era, posting 28 kills in the win over Harvard. That’s the most for a Gamecock since Shonda Cole’s 29 in her final collegiate match on Nov. 22, 2006.

Legacy Fulfilled With Addition Of Glover
Four new players grace the 2009 roster for South Carolina volleyball, with one of those following in the footsteps of her mother. Christina Glover, the 2007 and 2008 South Carolina 4A State Player of the Year, is the daughter of Alexis Homer Glover, who played during the AIAW days of the program (lettering in 1978-80). With the spotty records prior to 1985, no one is sure if Christina is the first “legacy” player in Gamecock history. If there are any alumnae who have had their daughter come through the program, they are urged to contact Koby Padgett via email or the phone number listed on page two of these notes.

Glover played well in limited action at the Mizuno Invitational II at Rice University, getting three kills in both matches while adding four digs in the match against No. 23 Wichita State. She added five kills during her first SEC weekend in five sets of action.

Welcoming Friends To Columbia
Carolina freshman Brandi Byers and Alabama redshirt freshman Leigh Moyer played club together with the A5 group from the Atlanta, Ga., area.

Scouting The Crimson Tide
Alabama had a rough go during non-conference play with a 2-8 record, but they rebounded last weekend with home wins over Georgia and Auburn to open its SEC schedule. The Tide will likely look to block out the Gamecocks, as they hold a 2.4-1.8 block-per-set advantage over their foes this season. Usually a strong serving team, Alabama averages 1.2 aces per set compared to 1.5 for their foes. Mary Catherine Aune, who led the SEC in service aces the past two seasons, has just four in 34 sets this year.

Ashley Frazier is the leading Alabama attacker, averaging 2.88 kills per set. However, she went off for 16 and 15 last weekend, earning SEC Offensive and National Player of the Week honors for her play. The front line is led by Calli Johnson and Sarah Machen, who both average at least a block per set. Better blocking lessens the need for back-line defenders, as the Crimson Tide average just 14.13 digs per set. Kelsey Anderson leads the team by average, while Frazier and Kayla Schmidt top the squad by totals. Alabama has been adjusting to life without All-SEC standout Brooks Webster, who hasn’t played since the opening weekend.

Series History vs. Alabama
The Crimson Tide hold an 18-15 lead in the meetings against South Carolina, but in Columbia, the Gamecocks are 9-4 against Alabama. South Carolina has won three straight in the series, the streak starting with 2007 season closer for the Gamecocks at home.

Scouting The Bulldogs
Under new head coach and alum Jenny Hazelwood, the Bulldogs are 4-9 on the season, dropping two straight at home last weekend in SEC play. Mississippi State last won an SEC road match on Nov. 2, 2007 at Auburn, making their losing streak 13 matches. The Maroon and White did win one road contest last year, at Jackson State, but they fell in their only non-conference road match this season at Missouri State. The Bulldogs have deficits in every category versus their opponents, including an over two-kill difference (14.2-11.9). They have fought to the end this season, as seven of their 48 sets have gone over its prescribed mark.

Ashley Newsome leads the Bulldog offense, posting a .311 hitting percentage to go with 3.40 kills per set. Newsome also leads in blocking with a 1.00 blocks-per-game average. Ioana Demian, who led the Maroons last season, ranks second with a 2.69 kills per frame mark. The Bulldogs have used two setters this year, with Hillary Parker playing most of the time, including the full match against Georgia. Kayla Woodward starts at libero and averages 4.23 digs per set, fourth in the SEC.

Series History vs. Mississippi State
South Carolina owns a 22-8 mark in the all-time series against the Bulldogs from the SEC West. In Columbia, the Gamecocks are 12-3, while the Garnet and Black have won four straight against Mississippi State.