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Sept. 16, 2010

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Coach Somera

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Gamecocks start Southeastern Conference play with a tough road trip to a pair of ranked teams. South Carolina plays No. 18 Tennessee on Friday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, with first serve set for 7 p.m. Sunday’s contest at No. 22 Kentucky is slated for a 1 p.m. start at Memorial Coliseum, with the Big Blue Network picking up the match for regional television coverage. It will show live on Fox Sports South in Kentucky and parts of North Carolina, with the 8 p.m. EDT replay showing in the entire Fox Sports South footprint. Gametracker live stats will be available for both matches this weekend.

Gamecocks Struggle in Early Going
The beginning slate for South Carolina Volleyball in 2010 was known to be tough, but no one could have predicted this start. The Gamecocks enter SEC play with a 2-7 record, but the losses have come against quality opposition. Four teams (Illinois, Middle Tennessee, Clemson and Lipscomb) made appearances in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Three (Middle Tennessee, College of Charleston and Lipscomb) were their respective league’s pick to win at least a division title. The league opener comes against the coaches’ pick to win the SEC title: the Tennessee Lady Vols.

Lawing Takes Over as (Back-row) Leader with Resounding Performance
Senior Hannah Lawing has played as a back-row specialist and as a full-rotation player during her first three years. This year, the Marietta, Ga., product hopes to stick as libero, and if last weekend’s performance is any indication, she will be a great one. At the State Farm Illini Classic, Lawing dug 5.91 balls per set, nearly 2.5 more than the next closest person. For her efforts, she claimed a spot on the all-tournament team while also earning the SEC Defensive Player of the Week award for the second time in her career.

Lawing continued her great work through the pre-conference schedule, claiming all-tourney honors again at the Carolina Challenge and Most Outstanding Libero accolades at the Gamecock Invitational. She still leads the SEC with a 5.38 digs average.

Lots of New Faces, But We’ve Been There Before
The Gamecocks started 2010 with one of the youngest teams in the country. There are nine true freshmen on the roster, tying for the most among all NCAA Division I teams. But it’s not new for head coach Ben Somera to have such a young roster. In his first year in 2007, eight true freshmen were on the team, with a redshirt freshman joining that group. Three of those remain on this team as seniors.

As for this year’s rookie class, seven have already seen time on the court through just one weekend. Five have drawn at least one start, with Cara Howley ranking as the only one to play in every set.

Roster Filled from All Over
Out of 17 players on South Carolina’s 2010 roster, a mere handful come from the same states. Three each hail from South Carolina and Georgia, while two come from Illinois. The rest come from states as far away as California, Michigan and Maryland. One even comes from Belgium, making this the 15th-consecutive season at least one Gamecock hailed from a different country.

South Carolina in the SEC Stats
A couple of Gamecocks stand out in the Southeastern Conference statistical rankings. Wednesday’s update shows the Garnet and Black standing second the SEC in digs per set at 16.48.

Senior Hannah Lawing stands atop the SEC with her 5.65 digs per set, while sophomore Taylor Bruns is fifth with 9.35 assists per set. Freshman Juliette Thévenin ranks seventh with 3.50 kills per set. The full list is in the PDF version of the notes.

Freshmen Bombing Away on the Outside
South Carolina head coach Ben Somera has put his trust behind two freshman outside hitters in the early going of 2010. After missing the first weekend waiting on NCAA clearance, Juliette Thévenin leads the team and ranks fifth in the SEC with 3.52 kills per set. Cara Howley has been in the starting rotation, ranking third on the squad with a 2.38 kills average. She enters the weekend as third on the team in blocks at 0.66 per set. They have joined Megan Laughlin to make a formidable group of outside hitters.

Stenlund Stuffing
Junior middle blocker Teresa Stenlund had one of the best matches of her career defensively against Lipscomb. The 6-2 California native blocked a career-best seven balls during the contest, including five solo stuffs. That’s the most solo blocks for a Gamecock since Ben Somera joined South Carolina in 2005. That total alone matches what Stenlund had done in her previous two seasons at South Carolina.

You Never Know What You’ll Hear
The Gamecocks have people who can speak in many different tongues. Players Teresa Stenlund and Juliette Thévenin both list four languages in their grasp, while new staff members (and wife-and-husband) Michelle Collier and Rafael Silva both can speak three. If the Silva’s little girl, Tais, picked up all the languages one might hear from those four, she would be working on seven languages (Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish).

Scouting Tennessee
The 18th-ranked team in the country, Tennessee leads the SEC in hitting percentage, kills and assists. UT also stand fourth in blocks and second in opponent hitting percentage. With a younger group passing, the Lady Vols stand just sixth in digs.

Nikki Fowler may be the best player in the SEC. The senior hits at a .309 clip, stands fourth in the league with 3.73 kills per set, and is third on the team in digs at 2.77. She also blocks a ball every two sets. Leah Hinkey leads the Lady Vols with a .348 hitting percentage, 0.28 aces per set and 1.25 blocks per set. Kayla Jeter and DeeDee Harrison both hit at a .324 clip and average over two kills per set. Kelsey Robinson tops UT with 3.10 digs per set while putting away 2.38 kills a set. Kelsey Mahoney (6.41) and Emily Steinbeck (4.94) form the setting duo that lead the league with a combined 13.12 assists per set.

Series History vs. the Lady Vols
In its second-longest series among SEC opponents, South Carolina is 25-29 all-time against Tennessee. In three of the past four years, the teams have split the meetings since the league went to the double round-robin schedule. Last season, the Lady Vols swept the series, including a three-set win in Thompson-Boling Arena. In Knoxville, the Gamecocks are 9-16 and have dropped the last seven contests.

Scouting Kentucky
While ranked 22nd in the country, the Wildcats are in a different spot in the league statistical rankings than where they’re accustomed. The Wildcats are last in the league in hitting percentage, kills, assists and service aces. They still have a strong block, leading the conference at 2.85 per set. The Wildcats did lose three starters, their leaders in kills (Sarah Mendoza), assists (Sarah Rumely) and digs (BriAnne Sauer). They gained height, as every starting offensive player minus starting setter Christine Hartmann is over six-feet tall. Hartmann is a mere 5-11.

Leading Kentucky in kills is redshirt freshman Whitney Billings with 3.28 kills per set. She also is second on the squad with 2.38 digs per set. Lauren Rapp has been the top attacker by percentage (.236) and has 1.07 blocks per set to go with her 2.26 kills per set. Blaire Hiler holds the second spot in kills for UK at 2.55. Alexandra Morgan stands fifth in the SEC with 1.12 blocks per set. Hartmann averages 9.08 assists per set. Stephanie Klefot tops the Wildcats with 3.98 digs per set.

Series History vs. the Wildcats
The Gamecocks are 17-24 in history against the Kentucky Wildcats, including dropping the last six and 11 of the last 12. The last South Carolina win in the series came in 2006, a five-set victory in the Volleyball Competition Facility in Columbia. South Carolina is 5-15 against Kentucky in Lexington. The last Gamecock victory in Kentucky was Nov. 5, 2003, when South Carolina captured a four-set victory.

Back-To-Back Matches against Ranked Teams? 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 seven 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. It happened twice last season, with the Gamecocks losing both pairs.

South Carolina in the National Stats
The Garnet and Black hangs its hat on its defense and for good reason. The squad stands 66th in digs in the NCAA’s weekly statistical rankings that come out early in the week. Individually, Hannah Lawing stands in the top 25 in digs, and Taylor Bruns is just outside the top 100 in two categories. The full list is in the PDF version of these notes

Gamecocks Good on TV at Home
South Carolina makes its debut on TV with Sunday’s match at Kentucky. Overall, the Gamecocks are 12-10 when the big cameras come out, dropping one match at Kentucky on the precursor to the Big Blue Network in 2006. The full chart is listed in the PDF version of the notes linked above.

Turning Heads & Taking a Spot
Freshman Lindsey Craft was a late addition to the roster, committing to the Gamecocks in the spring. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t go, as she showed with her 3.22 digs average at the State Farm Illini Classic. She had 22 against BYU alone. She has continued that strong play, posting the second-best digs average among the current Gamecock rotation players.