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Oct. 26, 2010

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Coach Somera

The South Carolina Gamecocks, fresh off a weekend split against key Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals, face a pair of tough tests to start a four-match road swing. Up first is a trip to Gainesville to take on the nation’s top ranked team, Florida. That contest is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m., with ESPNU showing it live on its nationwide network. The Gamecocks return home to prepare for a Sunday afternoon showdown at SEC Western Division co-leader Mississippi, with first serve set for 1:30 p.m. CDT on Halloween.

Juliette Thévenin Leading the Offense
Freshman Juliette Thévenin leads the Gamecocks in kills per set and stands third in hitting percentage among active players. Despite missing the first weekend of the year, she has led the team in kills 13 times, the most on the squad. If she continues to top South Carolina in kills, she would be just the fifth freshman since 1983 to accomplish that feat, joining Lori Rowe, Cally Plummer, Berna Dwyer and Lynae Vanden Hull with that distinction.

Thévenin became the second Gamecock in history to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors after averaging 5.17 kills per set during the Kentucky/Tennessee home weekend. Her 17 kills helped South Carolina defeat Kentucky for the first time since 2006, while she posted a career-best .345 hitting percentage against the 21st-ranked Lady Vols. It’s also the Gamecocks’ second weekly award this season.

Truly a Grueling Stretch
South Carolina is now halfway through a brutal stretch of six matches that has seen the squad go against five of the six teams that are considered the class of the league. Starting and ending with Auburn, the Gamecocks take on the two division leaders this week on the road, including Wednesday’s game at No. 1 Florida on ESPNU.

Three Tiers Turned into Two?
Normally, there are three groupings in the SEC standings: an elite group atop the league, a few teams hovering near the .500 mark and the rest. This season, there may only be two. Florida has separated itself from the entire league at 11-0, but Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi and Auburn have done the same. Kentucky could finish above .500 as well. The other five teams enter this week at a combined 13-44 (.228).

Lawing Takes Over as (Back-row) Leader with Resounding Performance
Senior Hannah Lawing spent time both as a back-row specialist and as a full-rotation player during her first three years. This year, the Marietta, Ga., product has played almost exclusively at libero, and so far she’s been great. 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 at the Carolina Challenge and Most Outstanding Libero accolades at the Gamecock Invitational.

She has not let up in league play, leading the SEC in digs overall (4.95) and in conference matches only (4.56). Lawing has compiled those numbers in league play despite spending four sets in the regular rotation as an outside hitter.

Already on the Single-Season Charts with Nine Matches to Play
Senior Hannah Lawing has joined some elite company in just 21 matches. She ranks fourth in digs during the rally-scoring era on the single-season charts. Already on the career digs list, Lawing could make a run at Sarah Cline’s single-season mark for this period of 498 set last year. Lawing also looks to become just the second Gamecock since 2001 to average over five digs per set, as she has hovered around that mark all season. She needs 154 to tie Diane Denton’s all-time single-season mark of 525, set in 1987.

Looking to Change Fortune
Since 1991, the Gamecocks hold a 8-85 record against ranked opponents, including an 0-5 mark this season. Half of those eight wins over ranked teams have come against SEC foes, twice over Florida. Against top-10 teams, that mark falls to 1-44, with the lone win coming over a sixth-ranked Gator team in 2006.

Weekday Games a Mixed Bag
South Carolina owns an 11-14 record in games played Monday thru Thursday in the rally-scoring era (since 2001) . That includes a 1-5 mark since Ben Somera took over, but that record is a little deceiving. All five losses have come to Florida in that stretch, with the lone win coming in a Thursday night win in 2008 over South Carolina State.

Gamecocks Suffer on Sundays
South Carolina holds a 1-5 record on Sundays this season, picking up its only win against The Citadel in non-conference play. The Gamecocks have not put up a great fight either on the Sabbath, forcing an extra set in just one of those five Sunday setbacks.

Scouting Florida
The nation’s No. 1 team, Florida rides a balanced offensive attack to the top of the league once again. In SEC play, the Gators have hit .302, leading the league by 20 percentage points. A strong serving game, Florida leads the league in service aces at 1.65 per set, with four individuals ranking in the top 10 in the conference in aces. Florida also stands third in blocks at 2.45 per frame. Those proficiencies probably explain why the Gators rank just ninth in the league in digs per set (12.86).

A very balanced offense, the six Gator attackers in the 6-2 all average over 1.5 kills per set. Junior Kelly Murphy plays both on the right and as setter at times and leads the team in kills (3.21), hitting percentage (.376), service aces (0.35) and assists (5.50). Kristy Jaeckel and Callie Rivers have been solid on the left, both averaging over two kills a set, while Rivers is second on the team with a 2.39 digs average. Middle blockers Lauren Bledsoe and Cassandra Anderson both hit over .350, while Anderson is sixth in the SEC with her 1.12 blocks average. Tangerine Wiggs adds 1.66 kills per set when Murphy is setting. Chanel Brown serves as the other setter, making one less assist than Murphy this season. Erin Fleming digs 3.66 balls a set from her libero spot.

Series History vs. the Gators
The Gamecocks have taken seven contests in the 49 meetings with Gators. South Carolina is just 2-27 against Florida since joining the SEC, picking up wins in 1994 and 2006, both at home. That most recent triumph, on Sept. 17, 2006, was the program’s eighth win all-time against a ranked foe, as Florida stood sixth in the national poll at that time. In Gainesville, the Gamecocks are 2-21, winning the first two trips in 1984 and 1986. South Carolina last took a set at Florida in 2000, the only set won in the 21-match losing streak.

Scouting Ole Miss
Tied for the SEC Western Division lead, the Rebels enter the weekend as one of three teams with 10 league wins through six weeks. Ole Miss has been especially tough at home, going 9-0 in the Gillom Sports Center. The Rebels use a superior defensive effort to succeed, leading the SEC in blocks (2.61) and digs (16.00) during league play. They also stand third in kills and assists and fourth in service aces.

Four Rebels average over two kills per set, led by Whitney Craven’s 3.17. She also stands second on the squad with 2.63 digs per set. Middle blockers Regina Thomas and Miranda Kitts hit over .300 and average over 2.25 kills and one block. Thomas leads the SEC with her .417 hitting percentage while she posts 2.50 kills and 1.20 blocks per set, the latter good for second in the SEC. Allegra Wells hits .227 while making 2.49 kills per set. Amanda Philpot, the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Week, has captured the setter role outright, now ranking fifth in SEC matches only with 8.46 digs per set. Morgan Springer stands second in the SEC with 4.81 digs per set, while she also has 1.05 assists per frame.

Series History vs. the Rebels
The Carolina Gamecocks and Ole Miss Rebels have met 33 times in history, with South Carolina holding a 23-10 edge in the series. The Gamecocks have won three of the last four meetings, including a sweep of Mississippi last season in the Gillom Sports Center. Carolina is 8-5 all-time at Ole Miss.

Back-To-Back Matches against Ranked Teams? It’s Happened Before
According to the archives, the Gamecocks have face ranked teams in consecutive matches 13 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. Four times, the Gamecocks have taken one of the two matches, with the last coming on Sept. 17, 2006. South Carolina downed No. 6 Florida in four sets at the Volleyball Competition Facility on Sun Sports TV. This will be the second time this season for the occurrence and fourth time in the past two campaigns, with the Gamecocks yet to take a match.

Looking for Some Help
South Carolina has made a mark with its serve reception and passing numbers in previous seasons. This season, senior libero Hannah Lawing is posting gaudy numbers, but there’s not much help. She’s just one of two Gamecocks who average more than two digs a set, as freshman Juliette Thévenin joined her after 21 matches. The Gamecocks have primarily tried to help Lawing by using the 6-2, relying on setters Jordan Bradosky and Taylor Bruns in defensive roles while also getting better passing from outside hitters Christina Glover and Thévenin.

Another option was tried against LSU and thrice more since (Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn), when Lawing moved out of the libero spot into the full rotation, while Wheeler took the off-colored jersey. It worked in serve receive against the LSU Tigers, as Wheeler had no errors in 14 tries.

Gamecocks Look to Change Results in Road TV Matches
South Carolina makes its final television appearance of 2010 at Florida. Overall, the Gamecocks are 12-13 when the big cameras come out. On the road, the Gamecocks are 4-9 on TV, last winning at Auburn in 2000. On national cable TV, South Carolina is 1-1, losing to the Gators last season on ESPNU. The full list of TV matches for South Carolina appears in the PDF version of the notes linked above.

I Said O . . . Olivia Ryder
After missing most of her senior season in high school and her true freshman year, redshirt sophomore Olivia Ryder has started showing what made her a top recruit. The Detroit area outside hitter posted then-career bests in kills (10), attempts (25) and hitting percentage (.320) when she came in against No. 18 Tennessee. She’s since bested those, including a .500 hitting percentage and 15 kills in the victory over Kentucky on Oct. 22. Among Gamecocks, she leads the team in hitting percentage overall (.278) and second in SEC play with a 2.31 kills average.

Stenlund Stuffing
Junior middle blocker Teresa Stenlund has stepped up in the middle for the Gamecocks. The 6-2 California native blocked a then-career best seven balls against Lipscomb, including five solo stuffs. That’s the most solo blocks for a Gamecock since Ben Somera joined South Carolina in 2005. That Lipscomb outing matched what Stenlund had done in her previous two seasons at South Carolina. She also posted six blocks in the win over The Citadel before besting her Lipscomb output with nine blocks against Arkansas, including a career-best eight assisted. She now ranks second on the team with a 0.71 blocks average.

Howley Out for the Year
A promising rookie season was cut short as Cara Howley injured her knee at Tennessee. The outside hitter from the greater Dallas area came down awkwardly from an attack, and the resulting MRI showed a torn ACL in her left knee. She underwent surgery on Oct. 14 to repair the damage. Howley had led the team twice in kills and stood third in both kills per set and hitting percentage. She also topped regular rotation players in blocks at the time of the injury.

This Is Not Normal
The Gamecocks have been in a different position than they’ve been in recently. In 2008 and 2009, the team posted more digs than their foes in 60 percent of the matches (36 of 60), going 27-9 in those matches. This season, South Carolina has won the digs war just five times while tying once, owning a 3-3 record in those six matches.

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 seen court time, with six drawing at least one start.

Not Quite as Young as 2007
South Carolina is one of the youngest teams in the country, as the nine freshmen on the roster tie for the most in the country in NCAA Division I. That doesn’t mean they are being relied upon as much as it seems. In similar circumstances back in 2007, when nine freshmen (one of those being a redshirt) were on the roster, the team drew 86 starts out of the group, or one less than half in the six rotation spots in 29 matches. Also, the 2007 group played in 463 sets combined in 106 frames. This season, the freshmen have compiled 44 starts in 21 matches and played in 259 sets thus far out of 75 on the season.

But Could We Repeat That Ending?
The 2007 team, as it gained experience and confidence, came together to go .500 in the final half of SEC play. The Gamecocks would welcome that this season after going 2-9 so far in league action.