Volleyball Opens Season Friday Hosting Gamecock Invitational
The two-day tournament brings in Texas A&M-CC, ETSU and rival Clemson
COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina volleyball team opens a highly anticipated 2018 season on Friday, with the start of the Gamecock Invitational. The two-day tournament features matches against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 12:30 p.m. and ETSU at 7:30 on Friday, and a 3 p.m. match against rival Clemson on Saturday afternoon. The match against the Tigers will stream live on the SEC+ network online, and fans can follow Friday’s matches through LIVE STATS.
SCOUTING TEXAS A&M-CORPUS CHRISTI
The Islanders went 15-14 in 2017, with an 11-5 record in the Southland Conference. The team lost standouts Kristyn Nicholson (9.83 assist per set) and Brittany Gilpin (3.56 points per set) from the 2017 roster, but will be led by returners Madison Green (2.46 kills per set) and libero Madison Woods (4.46 digs per set).
East Tennessee State are the defending SoCon champions, finishing 2017 with a 19-12 overall record. Though the team did lose Rylee Milhorn (339 kills, 259 digs in 2017), it does bring back its second- and third-ranked attackers in outside Leah Clayton and opposite AJ Lux, as well as top blocker Braedyn Tutton (116 blocks) and libero Marija Popovic (4.85 digs per set).
The Tigers went 7-25 in their first season under head coach Michaela Franklin, but return leading offensive producer Kaylin Korte (349 kills in 2017). Adding to the mix will be six newcomers, highlighted by Ohio State transfer Brooke Bailey.
MENDOZA READY FOR FIRST SEASON IN COLUMBIA
Tom Mendoza became the 13th head coach in Gamecock volleyball’s 46-year history on Jan. 3, 2017. Mendoza came to Columbia after two seasons as head coach at High Point University, where he led the Panthers to 47 wins and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Mendoza’s High Point team won 24 matches in 2017, the second-most in the program’s Division I era. Thanks to an ambitious non-conference schedule that included wins over Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio, the Panthers were in rare company as a mid-major program earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It was the team’s third NCAA berth overall, and was the first volleyball at-large bid in Big South Conference history. In the postseason, Mendoza was named Big South Coach of the Year and the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Southeast Region Coach of the Year for his efforts.
Before taking over at High Point, Mendoza helped lay the foundation for one of the top indoor program in the country – Creighton University. During his six years in Omaha, Mendoza helped the program win 20 or more matches five times, with five conference titles, five NCAA Tournament bids and a berth in the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2015.
The Buffalo Grove, Ill. native was a three-year letter winner at Newman University and a one-year letter winner at Lewis University, and was a NAIA All-American as a setter. He received his bachelor’s degree in management information systems from Lewis in 2007.
2017 RETURNER NOTABLES
- Junior Mikayla Shields made the 14-woman All-Southeast Region team from the AVCA, making her the 20th Gamecock to ever make a region team and the first sophomore from the program to make a team since 2002.
- Shields set the sophomore record for kills in 2017, leading the team with 429. The total was the fourth-most in the rally-scoring era, and moved her past 700 kills. Just two other Gamecocks in program history reached 700 kills in just their first two seasons with the team – Shonda Cole in 2004 and Lori Rowe in 1984. She also finished second on the team with a .284 hitting percentage over her 1,045 swings; just three other Gamecocks in program history have 1,000 attacks or more with a higher hitting percentage than Shields.
- Junior Courtney Koehler took the reins as the offense’s primary setter and posted 1,123 assists for the year, the most by a sophomore in rally-scoring era and third-most for a single season in rally-scoring era.
- Koehler also finished second on the team with 10 double-doubles, highlighted by a stretch of four straight between Sept. 8 to Sept. 16, and proved to be an efficient server, with 23 aces (second on the team) and just 27 errors for the season.
- Senior Aubrey Ezell made the switch from setter to libero and had one of the best seasons ever by a Gamecock defender, totaling a career-high 527 digs. That ranked third in the SEC, and are the second-most ever in a single season in the program’s 45-year history.
- Ezell also led the SEC with 49 aces, which are also a new career high, and became the first player in the rally-scoring era to eclipse 100 career aces.
- Junior Claire Edwards finished third on the team with 177 kills (1.75 per set), doubled her solo blocks from her freshman season (from eight to 16), and finished third on the team with 74 total blocks.
- Sophomore middle Mikayla Robinson made the SEC All-Freshman team, the third-straight season the Gamecocks had a representative on the team. It came after a season where she led all conference freshmen in blocks (121) and finished second on the team with 260 kills.
- Junior Alicia Starr moved back to her natural position on the left side and doubled her kill total from her 2016 freshman season, averaging 1.79 kills and 1.24 digs per set in her 26 matches played.
PHEISTER ROUNDS OUT GAMECOCK STAFF
Joining first-year head coach Tom Mendoza and fourth-year assistant coach Shonda Cole on the bench this fall will be Ethan Pheister, who spent the last three seasons as an assistant at LSU, working with the Tiger setters and helping coordinate the offense.
“Ethan is the right coach to round out our staff, and contributes to the culture we are working to build in our program. He is an elite trainer and is one of the top minds in our game from a scouting and analysis perspective. More importantly, he identifies well with the student-athletes, and has a teach-first mentality to their development both on and off the court,” Mendoza said.
LSU turned itself around in 2017, going from nine wins in the previous season to 20 wins and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Pheister also had prior experience coaching in the SEC, spending the 2012 season at Arkansas and helping the Razorbacks make the national tournament.
“There are a lot of things that are exciting about what’s going on at South Carolina right now,” Pheister said. “The vision that Tom and Shonda have of what this program can be matches up with what I see as well. I’m really excited to be a part of that process and see where we can take this program. This is a team that’s on the precipice of taking that next step.”
GAMECOCKS CHASING WIN #800
As the program begins the 2018 campaign, a major milestone is well within reach. South Carolina holds an all-time record of 797 wins and 630 losses, meaning the Gamecocks could crash through 800 wins early on in the non-conference schedule. Along the way, the team has 17 season with 20 wins or more and seven appearances in the NCAA tournament.
With 137 career aces entering her final season, libero Aubrey Ezell is the first Gamecock to crack the top 10 for career aces since 2002. After leading the SEC in aces in 2017, Ezell begins the 2018 campaign as the rally-scoring era leader for career aces and is 25 away from entering the program’s top five for most all-time.
Mikayla Shields followed up a record-breaking freshman season with an even better sophomore campaign in 2017. The Orlando, Fla. native upped her kills per set from 3.25 to 3.70 and more than doubled her entire 2016 total for digs, with a 2.44 average per set. On Nov. 8 of last season against Missouri, Shields set a career high with 29 kills, and on Nov. 12 vs. Arkansas, she broke 700 career kills. She is just the third sophomore in the program’s 45-year history to make it to 700 kills in just her first two seasons. The others were all-time kills leader Lori Rowe (in 1984), and current associate head coach Shonda Cole (in 2004).
EZELL JOINS EXCLUSIVE CLUB
Aubrey Ezell passed 1,000 career digs in her junior year, making her the fourth player in the program’s 45-year history to reach 2,000 assists, 1,000 digs and 100 aces in a career. The last Gamecock to achieve the three milestones was Megan Hosp (1999-02), and Ashley Edlund (1995-98) and Jodi Thompson (1991-94) round out the exclusive quartet.
MCLEAN BRINGS POSTSEASON EXPERIENCE TO SC
Britt McLean transferred to South Carolina after two seasons at Minnesota. She comes to the team after ending the 2017 on a high note with the Gophers, playing every set of their three NCAA tournament matches. In the opening round against North Dakota, McLean led the team with 13 kills and a .355 attack percentage in a three-set sweep. In her two seasons, McLean played in nine matches.
Aubrey Ezell is on an impressive streak for the Gamecocks. The senior has not missed a single set in her career, entering opening weekend on a stretch of 91 matches played. Currently, her 336 total sets played rank 17th in the program’s rally-scoring era, but no other player in this era have played in as many consecutive sets.
The Gamecocks have made the Carolina Volleyball Center one of the toughest venues in the country over the last two seasons. Of the program’s top ten crowds heading into the fall, seven have come in either 2016 or 2017. Last season, the team’s matches against Mercer (1,925 fans) and Miami (Ohio) (1,820 fans) ranked second and third all-time, but the record is 2,041, set against Clemson on Sept. 4, 2016.
DOUBLE-DOUBLE THE TROUBLE
Junior Mikayla Shields enters her junior year with 16 career double-doubles, putting her on the cusp of entering the program’s career top-20 list. Shields had five double-doubles as a freshman and went to 11 as a sophomore, which ranked 21st for most in a single season. Teammate Aubrey Ezell ranked 15th on the career list with 22 – only six Gamecocks total have gone over 20 career double-doubles in the last 15 years.
- South Carolina holds a 797-630 (.558) all-time record, dating back to 1973.
- The Gamecocks joined the SEC for volleyball in 1991, and have an all-time conference record of 185-263 (.415).
- In matches in the Carolina Volleyball Center, Carolina 190-111 (.631) overall and 95-94 (.503) in SEC matches.
- Tom Mendoza became the program’s 13th head coach on Jan. 3, 2018. This is his third season overall as a head coach, with a career record of 47-18.