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Nov. 12, 2009

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Coach Somera

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The end of the 2009 regular season approaches, as the Gamecocks participate in two Senior Days this weekend. On Friday night, South Carolina heads down I-26 to play at South Carolina State in the Bulldogs’ final regular-season contest of 2009. First serve is set for 6 p.m. at Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center. And Sunday’s match against No. 19 LSU will be Senior Day for the Gamecocks, as they honor four players prior to the 1:30 p.m. first serve.

SCSU is 13-18 on the season overall, dropping two straight road contests, including one at the Citadel on Wednesday. LSU enters the weekend tied for second in the SEC at 20-5, 14-2.

Opposite Ends Of The Spectrum
This weekend’s foes for South Carolina occupy two nearly opposite spots in the national picture. On Friday night, the Gamecocks face South Carolina State, which stands 300th out of 330 teams in the NCAA’s RPI rankings released weekly. LSU enters the weekend at No. 11 in that same list. South Carolina finishs the season with four matches against top 25 RPI teams.

Defensive Minded
South Carolina has been outstanding defensively as a team, ranking 39th in the country in digs in Monday’s report. 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 16 times in 2009, going 11-5 in those matches. Last season, the Gamecocks finished second in the league in digs per set, leaping up from fifth in 2007.

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 its 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. They are 3-6 at the facility in 2009 during SEC play, with four of the losses coming against the top tier of the league.

The Gamecocks nearly broke a six-year road losing streak in league play, going 4-6 last year. But that was a considerable improvement over 2003-07, when South Carolina won just nine road matches in 43 tries. The Garnet and Black are 2-5 on the road in league action this fall with three SEC road matches left to play.

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. The senior has become the first three-time ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District III selection by CoSIDA in program history while also helping the squad improve on its second-place ranking in 2008’s final 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 20 times while adding seven 20+ dig matches. She jumped from 11th to second on the career digs chart, passing three people in the first match of the year. She needs 65 digs to tie Diane Denton for the program record. She’s 98 digs from tying for 10th on the SEC career list. Cline has already broken the rally-scoring era digs mark with 431 this seaosn, and she’s 94 scoops from tying the all-time single-season mark of Denton’s.

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 consecutive-sets played streak among current players 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 has continued a stretch of 14 years for Carolina to have at least one international student-athlete on the roster.

The senior outside hitter is the 11th Gamecock to record 1,000 career kills, entering the top 10 during the Missisippi match on Oct. 23. She ranks seventh in kills (1,133), ninth in career kills per set (2.91) and fifth in attacks (3,047). She’s also tied for 20th with 96 career aces and 19th with 823 career digs.

The Awards Season Has Started, And Cline Is First Rewarded
While there’s still three weeks left in the season, awards have already started coming out. Senior Sarah Cline became the first three-time ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District III honoree, picking up first-team accolades for the second straight year. That goes with her SEC Defensive Player of the Week certificate she took home in week three of the year. Classmate Ivana Kujundzic brought home the first award of the year when she garnered SEC Offensive Player of the Week status after the first weekend of play in the Big Orange Bash. The Academic All-America group of 2009 will be announced by CoSIDA on Nov. 23, while the SEC’s yearly awards will come out the following week.

Experience 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.

What We Lost
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, which 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.

Back-To-Back Matches Against A Ranked Team? It’s Happened Before
According to the archives, the Gamecocks have face ranked teams in consecutive matches 12 times in history. The first came in 1991 as they faced a seventh-ranked LSU team in Baton Rouge before hosting No. 11 Florida. Both of those matches ended in defeat for South Carolina. In three of the previous six times the Gamecocks have played back-to-back ranked foes and four times overall, the Gamecocks have taken one of the two matches. The last time South Carolina beat a ranked team in this scenario was on Sept. 17, 2006, when the Gamecocks downed No. 6 Florida in four sets at the Volleyball Competition Facility. That match was shown on Sun Sports TV. Earlier this season, the Gamecocks dropped a five-set affair to No. 15 Kentucky before falling in four at home against No. 6 Florida.

The Return Of The Giants
Production from the middle blockers had slacked off with the departure of All-SEC performer Belita Salters. But the last three weeks have been encouraging, as junior Megan Laughlin has stepped up as the top middle, and freshman Brandi Byers has emerged as a force. Laughlin has double-digit kills in each of the last seven matches, including a career-best 22 that came at Mississippi State. Byers, who entered the lineup for good after the break at Auburn, has started the last six contests, leading the team in blocks in three of those while recording 10 kills in the home win over the Auburn Tigers.

Gamecocks Claim South Carolina State Title Again
The Gamecocks won the “Palmetto State” title for the second-consecutive year, defeating Clemson, College of Charleston and Winthrop in the 19th-annual Big Orange Bash. And already this season, South Carolina added a sweep of former system school Coastal Carolina, stretching the in-state win streak to eight matches. Last season, the Gamecocks went 4-0 against in-state schools, adding South Carolina State to the Big Orange Bash list from above. The Garnet and Black look to make it nine when it returns last year’s match against the SCSU Bulldogs on Friday.

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 before taking the job with her all-around play. She improved her kills 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 mark during the final 15 matches of 2008 when pressed into full-court duty.

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. Those 28 kills are also the most for any player in the SEC this season.

Lawing has tallied double-doubles in 12 matches this season, including during each match of the Big Orange Bash and the Mizuno Invitational II. She now has 20 career double-doubles. She missed three of the last four matches with a lower leg injury, but she returned with a double-double at Alabama.

Is It That Simple? The Last Two Years Say Yes
In 2008, the Gamecocks had a simple formula for winning: have a higher hitting percentage than their foe. The Garnet and Black went 21-0 when it out-hit the opposition. 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 13 times this season, losing just one of those matches. That one came against Alabama.

South Carolina In The National Stats
The Garnet and Black hangs its hat on its defense and for good reason. The squad stands 32nd in digs in the NCAA’s weekly statistical rankings that come out Monday afternoons. The team also is in the top 60 in two offensive categories: kills and assists. Individually, Ivana Kujundzic is among the nation’s top 60 in kills and points per set. The full list is in the PDF version of these notes.

South Carolina In The SEC Stats
A couple of the Gamecocks stand out in the Southeastern Conference statistical rankings. Monday’s update shows the Garnet and Black leading the SEC in digs per set at 16.56. The squad also ranks fourth in kills and assists per set. Senior Sarah Cline ranks second in the SEC with her 4.59 digs per set, while classmate Ivana Kujundzic is third in kills per set (3.99) and fourth in aces (0.31).

Scouting South Carolina State
The Bulldogs are 13-18 and close their regular season on Friday against the Gamecocks. The team lives and dies by serving, posting 204 aces (1.8 per set) this season while making 211 receiving errors. They do hang with their foes up front, averaging just 0.1 blocks a set less than the opposition.

Jarne Gleaton leads the squad with a 2.36 kills-per-set mark, while Jade Sanford holds the top mark with a .271 hitting percentage. Bria Brimmer guides the offense with 8.03 assists per set. Lauren Harris and Melissa Robinson both average over two digs per frame.

Series History vs. The Bulldogs
This will be the second meeting between the schools separated by 40 miles of Interstate 26. The Gamecocks won last year’s meeting in a 3-0 sweep.

Scouting LSU
The Tigers enter the weekend at 20-5 on the year and tied for second with a 14-2 mark in SEC play. Ranked 19th in the country, LSU stands at 11 in the latest RPI rankings from the NCAA. The Tigers are strong all around, but they stand out most at the net. LSU leads the SEC with a 2.79 blocks average. They are no worst than fourth in any statistical category.

Brittnee Cooper is vying for SEC Player of the Year accolades, as she leads the conference with a .381 hitting percentage and 1.39 blocks per set. She also leads the Tigers with a 3.45 kills average, which ranks sixth in the league. Right behind her is teammate Marina Skender, who averages 3.37 kills per frame while standing second in digs at 2.65. Michele Williams is third on the team with 2.23 kills per set and second in blocks at 1.15 per frame. Sam Dabbs guides the offense and stands second in the conference with 11.01 assists per set. Lauren Waclawczyk captains the back line with a 3.45 digs mark, one of five Tigers with a digs average over two per set.

Series History vs. The Tigers
The LSU Tigers and Carolina Gamecocks have met just 25 times previously in volleyball, the second-least amount of matches for South Carolina against an SEC opponent (one more than against Arkansas). LSU took a 13-12 lead in the series with a win in Baton Rouge in early October. The squads have split the last two season series. The Gamecocks are 6-5 at home against the Tigers.