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Nov. 19, 2009

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina hits the road for its final three regular-season outings of 2009 with tough tests against the top three teams in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. The stretch starts on Friday night at Memorial Gymnasium, when the Gamecocks face 10th-ranked Kentucky at 7 p.m. Sunday finds South Carolina in Knoxville for a 1:30 p.m. first serve against Tennessee.

The Wildcats lead the SEC with a 16-1 league record and enter the weekend at 26-2 on the season. The Lady Vols, third in the SEC, will celebrate Senior Day on Sunday with a group that has helped the squad to a 20-7 overall record, 13-4 in the conference.

Rough Stretch At The End Of This Road
South Carolina finishes the season with four matches against top 25 RPI teams. The stretch started last Sunday against LSU, who’s the top rated team in the SEC at No. 10 currently. Kentucky is 20th, Tennessee is 23rd and Florida ranks 18th. The Wildcats and Gators both are in the top 20 in the AVCA poll.

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. SC lost the first end of this doubleheader to No. 19 LSU on Sunday at home.

Defensive Minded
South Carolina has been outstanding defensively as a team, ranking 47th 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 17 times in 2009, going 12-5 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. The Gamecocks went 3-7 at the facility in 2009 during SEC play, the first losing conference record at home since Kim Hudson’s final season in 2004, when the team went 2-6. 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 22 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 34 digs to tie Diane Denton for the program record. She’s 67 digs from tying for 10th on the SEC career list. Cline has already broken the rally-scoring era digs mark with 462 this season, and she’s 63 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 Mississippi 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.

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 eight of the last nine 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 eight contests, leading the team in blocks in four 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 this season, South Carolina added a sweep of former system school Coastal Carolina and another win over South Carolina State, stretching the in-state win streak to nine matches. Last season, the Gamecocks went 4-0 against in-state schools, adding South Carolina State to the Big Orange Bash list from above.

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 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 14 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 47th in digs in the NCAA’s weekly statistical rankings that come out Monday afternoons. The team is also 56th in kills and 61st in 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 the 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 16.49. The squad also ranks fourth in kills and assists per set. Senior Sarah Cline ranks second in the SEC with her 4.62 digs per set, while classmate Ivana Kujundzic is third in kills per set (3.99) and fourth in aces (0.31).

Scouting No. 10 Kentucky
The Wildcats enter the weekend two wins away from clinching a share of the Southeastern Conference title for the first time in over 20 years. They rank in the top four in every category except service aces, where they are “only” sixth. Kentucky is strongest on the offensive side, ranking second in hitting percentage and first in both assists and kills.

Kentucky boasts of the top player in the SEC in both kills and assists. Sarah Mendoza leads the league with 4.23 kills per set, while she’s third on the squad with 2.33 digs per frame. Sarah Rumely tops the league with 11.83 assists per frame, stands fourth in digs at 2.04, while she lands 1.15 kills per set. Gretchen Giesler ranks third in the SEC and leads the Wildcats with a .366 hitting percentage. Teammates Becky Pavan and Lauren Rapp are also in the top 10 in hitting percentage, with all three averaging over two kills a set. BriAnne Sauer stands third in the league at 4.58 digs per frame.

Series History vs. The Wildcats
The Gamecocks are 17-23 in history against the Kentucky Wildcats, including dropping the last five and 10 of the last 11. The last South Carolina win in the series came in 2006, a five-set victory in the Volleyball Competition Facility. South Carolina is 5-14 against Kentucky in Lexington. The last Gamecock victory in Kentucky was Nov. 5, 2003, when South Carolina caputred a four-set victory.

Scouting Tennessee
The Lady Vols rely on a defensive approach, as they limit their foes to a .165 hitting percentage, the lowest of any league member. They rank second in both blocks (2.66 per set) and digs (16.16 per set). Tennessee, who’s third in the SEC East, is fifth in hitting percentage and kills and sixth in assists.

Nikki Fowler tops the squad in kills while standing second in digs and tying for third in blocks and service aces. Kayla Jeter ranks second on the squad with a 2.69 kills average. Kelsey Mahoney and Emily Steinbeck guide the two-setter offense that dishes out 12.11 assists per set as a team. Chloe Goldman is the back-row captain, as she leads the SEC with a 4.67 digs average.

Series History vs. The Lady Vols
In its second-longest series among SEC opponents, South Carolina is 25-28 all-time against Tennessee. The past three years have lived up to that overall record, as the teams have split the meetings since the league went to the double round-robin schedule (UT won the earlier meeting, 3-1). In Knoxville, the Gamecocks are 9-15 and have dropped the last six contests on the banks of the Tennessee River.