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Aug. 25, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina’s volleyball team officially begins its new era and season this weekend at the Temple Invitational, with the lidlifter coming on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. EDT against Montana in McGonigle Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. The Gamecocks play twice on Saturday, facing the host Owls at 12:30 p.m. before wrapping up the event against Stony Brook at 5 p.m.

The Gamecocks start the Scott Swanson era this weekend, as he becomes the 11th coach in the 39-year history of the program. He inherits 12 returners and five starters while adding four signees. A young squad, South Carolina has 12 players classified as a sophomore or younger, a season after tying for the most freshmen in NCAA Division I. The team returns over two-thirds of its offense from last year, but the squad will have to replace nearly half of the team’s digs.

South Carolina’s success begins on the outside, with a plethora of options ready for Swanson and staff to use this fall. Two freshmen have impressed already, as Bethanie Thomas and Hanna Forst have challenged for important roles. Thomas, a 6-1 rookie from Madison, Ala., has focused on the right side and has been complimented for her all-around approach. Forst, a consensus high school All-American from Lenexa, Kan., had Swanson complimenting her competitiveness and ability to improve. They have challenged a group of returners fronted by 2010 SEC All-Freshman Team member Juliette Thévenin. The 6-2 native of Belgium led the Gamecocks in kills and aces a year ago and could front the offense yet again.

That group will be constantly battled for their starting roles by a quartet of others. Junior Christina Glover has the most experience of the four, playing in 26 matches a year ago. Sophomore Megan Kent continues her solid work and could find time either on the outside or in the middle. Redshirt freshmen Cara Howley and Kellie Schmidt are both rebounding from surgeries a year ago. Howley could reassert herself in the lineup either on the outside or in the middle, while Schmidt’s outstanding leaping ability will continue to be developed into an all-around game. Freshman Christina Vereb could also help as an outside hitter or in the middle.

Senior Teresa Stenlund anchors the middle blockers. A two-year starter looks to close her career strong, but she does have her name in the record books with her five solo blocks in a three-set match last year. Sophomore Frankie Vain has pushed herself in practice to keep an advantage for the other middle blocker spot. Junior Brandi Byers, the tallest Gamecock in recorded history at 6-4, could also see time in the middle. Howley, Kent and Vereb could also see time in the middle if needed.

Junior Taylor Bruns should start at setter, bringing back a ton of experience after starting most of last season. She may be utilized more in a 5-1 system than she has in the past two years. But the 6-2 could be an option, as freshman Lexie Pawlik has pushed Bruns during practice. Pawlik only lacks game experience, as she has earned high marks on the staff for the fundamentals.

Back-row specialists Lindsey Craft and Paige Wheeler have run neck-and-neck during practices this fall for the starting libero spot. Both could help the team defensively during their sophomore campaigns. Another sophomore, Kathryn Pearce, could be used as a serving and defensive specialist like she was at times last season.

Montana enters the season with five starters back from last year’s 13-15 team that tied for third in the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies bring back their second-best attacker (sophomore Kayla Reno) and blocker (Brittany Quick). Temple also begins the year with a new coach, as Bakeer Ganes inherits a team that went 4-25 in 2010. Three starters are back for the Owls, including sophomore outside hitter Elyse Burkert, who ranked second on the team with 2.23 kills per set. Stony Brook returns eight letter winners from last year’s 11-18 squad, including All-America East outside hitter Alicia Nelson, who led the team with 3.81 kills per set.

South Carolina is 1-1 all-time against their foes in this tournament, beating Stony Brook at a tournament at Rhode Island in 2008 and losing to Temple on a neutral court in 1982. The Gamecocks and Grizzlies have never met in volleyball.

Temple is providing live stats of every match of the tournament at