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Gamecocks Head to Texas for Rice Invitational
Women's Volleyball  . 

Gamecocks Head to Texas for Rice Invitational

The two-day tournament pits South Carolina against Liberty, Houston Baptist and the host Owls

HOUSTON, TEXAS – The South Carolina volleyball team hits the road for week two of the 2018 season, taking its 3-0 record to the Lone Star State for a weekend tournament at Rice University. The two-day event begins Friday and pits the Gamecocks against Liberty, Houston Baptist and the host Owls. Fans can follow the action all weekend through LIVE STATS, and Friday night’s match against Rice will stream online through

The Flames were just 12-19 last season, but return a two-woman attack of Anna Gragg (2.80 kills per set), and Casey Goodwin (2.58 kills per set) that led the offense. The team also returned both starting setters and starting libero Margaret Latchford (4.08 digs per set in 2017). In the opening weekend, Liberty went 1-2 with a win over Oakland but losses to Indiana State and IPFW. The Flames were strong at the net, averaging 2.73 blocks per set over the three matches played, and also had a balanced offense that featured five different attackers averaging two or more kills per set.
The Owls went 21-9 last season, making the National Invitational tournament. The team has a talented young core, led by sophomore Nicole Lennon, who was named Conference USA’s freshman of the year in 2017 after leading all freshmen nationally with 1,313 attacks and ranking second in the conference with 425 kills. She’s joined by junior middle Grace Morgan, who paired her 319 kills with a team-high 124 blocks. Defensively, junior libero Lee Ann Cunningham passed 1,000 career digs in just two seasons and averaged 4.72 digs per set in 2017. In their opening weekend, the Owls went 2-1 at a tournament hosted by Texas Tech, defeating North Dakota and Northwestern State but losing in five sets to the Red Raiders. Lennon made the all-tournament team after leading the offense with 4.33 kills per set, and Morgan joined her on the team with 3.09 kills per set and 13 total blocks. 
The Huskies were another 20-win team in 2017, going 21-10 and 11-5 in the Southland Conference, but were hit hard by graduation. Gone are the top two attackers, Bailey Banks and Jessica Wooten, who accounted for 49 percent of the team’s total kills as well as 41 percent of its total digs. A trio of role players from last season stepped up in a big way for the team’s opening weekend, helping the Huskies go 3-0 at home. Mikayla Vivens led the team with 4.00 kills and 3.10 digs per set, after totaling just 52 kills total as a freshman in 2017. Also emerging as a greater threat was sophomore middle Megan Patillo, who averaged 2.90 kills and hit .403 for the weekend, and Kelly Colwell, who missed all of 2017 with injury but returned to total 29 kills in the tournament. Hannah Lewis helped ease the transition for the defense, as she stepped into the libero role and finished with 50 digs to lead all Huskies.

  • Junior Mikayla Shields was named the tournament MVP after totaling 32 kills and 28 digs over the three wins, also hitting .373. Joining her on the all-tournament team were Courtney Koehler (10.78 assist/set) and Claire Edwards (19 total kills, .350 hitting percentage).
  • Sophomore Jess Vastine stepped into the lineup as a starting left side and responded with a career-high 10 kills against Texas A&M-CC and Clemson and averaged 2.56 kills per set for the weekend.
  • Junior Britt McLean hit .255 with 2.44 kills per set as the team’s other left side, including nine kills and a .467 hitting percentage in the win vs. Clemson.
  • Senior Aubrey Ezell’s six total aces vs. ETSU are the second-most in a three-set match in program history and tied her personal best set last season against Miami (Ohio). Along with her total from the A&M-Corpus Christi match, she finished with 10 aces in six sets Friday.
  • Shields’ double-double against ETSU tied her with Shonda Cole for 20th-most in program history (with 17). Only five other Gamecocks in the rally-scoring era have more.
  • Saturday’s win over Clemson was the fourth straight in the series, and the 40th victory all-time between the two rivals. This is the longest win streak by either team in the series since 1989.
  • This is the third-straight season where the team started 3-0 and didn’t drop a single set. 

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.
South Carolina’s 3-0 sweep of Clemson on Aug. 25 was the 800th victory in the program’s history. Along the way, the team has 17 season with 20 wins or more and seven appearances in the NCAA tournament.

After leading the SEC and setting a personal best with 49 service aces in 2017, Ezell begins the 2018 campaign as the rally-scoring era leader in the category. The senior racked up 11 aces over nine sets in the opening weekend and is now 14 away from entering the program’s top five for most all-time. She currently ranks third nationally with her 1.22 aces per set average, and her 148 career aces are second among all active Division I athletes.
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).
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.
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 at Minnesota, McLean played in nine matches.
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.”

Though the Rice Invitational will be a road trip for the team, it will feel right at home for four Gamecocks who hail from the Lonestar State. Addie Bryant (San Antonio) played just down the road at San Jacinto College last season, and seniors Aubrey Ezell (Granbury) and Jess Turner (Austin) and freshman Amari Wilson (Allen) all were accomplished high school standouts from the volleyball-rich state.
Aubrey Ezell is on an impressive streak for the Gamecocks. The senior has not missed a single set in her career, entering the weekend on a stretch of 94 matches played. Currently, her 345 total sets played rank 16th 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 three seasons. Of the program’s top ten crowds all time in the CVC, eight have come between 2016 and 2018, including a program-record crowd of 3,458 at the Clemson match on Aug. 25. That beat the record set less than 24 hours earlier, when 2,579 watched the team take down ETSU. After the opening weekend, the Gamecocks rank fourth nationally for cumulative attendance and fifth in average attendance.
After going for 12 kills and 13 digs against ETSU (8/24), Mikayla Shields moved into the top 20 for career double-doubles, tying her with Shonda Cole. Teammate Aubrey Ezell ranks 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 an 800-630 (.559) all-time record, dating back to 1973. The team’s 800th win of all time came on Aug. 25, 2018 against Clemson.
  • 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 193-111 (.635) 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 50-18.