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Sept. 15, 2011

by Koby Padgett
Assistant Media Relations Director

COLUMBIA, S.C. – With a third of the season down, South Carolina leads the country in digs per set.

Let that statement sink in for a moment. While an area that the Gamecocks have worked hard on previously, it’s difficult to ever be leading the country, atop of 328 NCAA Division I teams.

Sophomore outside hitter Juliette Thévenin said, “At first I didn’t believe that it was in the nation. I thought it was in the SEC or something. But I was like the whole USA? Yea, that’s great!”

Last season, the squad ranked 149th at the end of the year. While their best standing in a category, it still pales in comparison to where they start in the NCAA’s first stat report of 2011. Many factors play into this, but some of it comes from a mantra heard from nearly every Gamecock at one time or another.

“Never let a ball drop is our goal,” freshman outside hitter Hanna Forst remarked. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-handed pass, as long as you don’t let that ball touch the floor. That’s the mentality for this year.”

Thévenin added, “We’ve been working hard the whole preseason. We’ve learned we can never let a ball drop.”

The Gamecocks have bought into this mentality laid forth by first-year head coach Scott Swanson, who says there’s not really a secret to what they are trying to do.

“We try to funnel as many balls as we can to our libero,” said Swanson. “It’s more about the mentality, but it is a lot of strategy as well.”

That strategy plays out in two ways. “We have to get the other team out of system,” said sophomore libero Paige Wheeler, “and our blockers have been doing a really good job about closing the block and funneling a lot to left back. That’s made our job a lot easier. Juliette’s been getting a lot of digs too.”

And it’s not just been Thévenin who has made a lot of digs. Of the five people in the rotation who are expected to contribute in passing, all five have posted over 2.5 digs per set. Wheeler leads the way with 4.88, which is 57th in the country, while Thévenin has tallied 4.21 per set, which ranks fourth in the league. Freshmen Bethanie Thomas (3.18 dps) and Forst (2.60) also have made their fair share of passes, while junior setter Taylor Bruns is posting her best average in three years (2.85).

When asked if there’s a competition between the outside hitters in regards to their passing, Forst drew up and said, “Not at all. Bethanie could get 25 kills in one game, and I’d be so happy for her. I want to make my teammates better, so if that means if she gets every kill and I get almost every pass, that’s totally fine with me. It’s about us supporting each other. When one person isn’t doing so well, it’s about helping them improve in another area. We’re really good about supporting each other.”

That teamwork is not just limited to one group. Wheeler said, “You feel comfortable. You can rely on other players other than your libero (to pass). Our outside hitters are great ball handlers.”

Other factors play into this as well. Four times, sets have gone past the 25-point mark in ending, including two going into the 30s. Rallies also have tended to be longer, as the Gamecocks have not ended many points on their own errors. Swanson commented, “We’re being patient by keeping balls we can’t kill in play.”

The Gamecocks also stand in the top 20 in the country in kills (2nd), assists (3rd) and hitting percentage (17th), all leading to the Gamecocks’ current 9-1 mark.

Those statistics battles are some of many a team can claim in a night, but only one win counts in the end. The Gamecocks hope to continue to compile more marks in that “W” column.