Volleyball Prepares for Weekend Road Battle With Tennessee
The Gamecocks play the Volunteers Friday and Saturday
KNOXVILLE, TENN. – South Carolina volleyball begins a stretch of four games in six days when it travels to Tennessee for two weekend matches, starting Friday. The Gamecocks are newly minted with the No. 15 ranking in the latest national coaches poll, but will need to be sharp against a battle-tested Volunteers team as the fall portion of the schedule hits the home stretch. The Friday match begins at 7 p.m. ET and airs live on the SEC Network, Saturday’s rematch will be at 5 p.m. and go on the SEC Network+ stream online.
GAMECOCK VOLLEYBALL RETURNS TO THE NATIONAL POLLS
Ahead of its final road series of the fall, South Carolina earned the No. 15 ranking in the AVCA’s weekly coaches poll, announced Wednesday afternoon. It is the program’s first appearance in the rankings since 2002.
The program last came in ranked on Dec. 2, 2002, earning the No. 24 spot in a season where it finished with a 23-7 record and made the second round of the NCAA tournament with future South Carolina Hall of Famer Cally Plummer leading the way.
On the current roster, four Gamecocks were born in the year 2002.
Currently in season three under head coach Tom Mendoza, the Gamecocks have already achieved milestones not previously seen in their 48-season history. South Carolina enjoyed back-to-back seasons with at least 20 wins and a postseason victory in 2018 and 2019. Despite graduating four starters from last year’s squad, the Gamecocks are pushing again for the postseason this coming spring after splitting the season’s opening series at Georgia and recently sweeping two matches from Auburn at home.
AUBURN SERIES RECAP
In its first home series of the fall, South Carolina took care of business with a pair of wins over Auburn. The full roster enjoyed a sweep on Wednesday, with 17 different Gamecocks seeing the floor in the win. The defense held the Tigers to just a .010 hitting percentage while five different hitters posted five or more kills for Carolina. In the rematch Thursday, Auburn responded with 17 team blocks to push the Gamecocks to four sets. Three different members of the Garnet and Black recorded double-doubles in the win – Mallory Dixon, Kyla Manning and Riley Whitesides – and Camilla Covas shined in her first collegiate start at libero. The sophomore was perfect on 24 serve receptions while adding 14 digs and a career-high four service aces.
Head Coach Tom Mendoza on Auburn…
“I liked the way we responded, our challenge to the team was that it’s a good thing that Auburn is playing better. This is what we signed up for, this is playing SEC volleyball, playing good teams, well-coached teams. Let’s match their intensity and enjoy playing. That was our message in the huddle and I thought our team responded really well and you could see that on the court.”
The Volunteers have battled through their first two series, facing tough opposition with Kentucky and Georgia so far. The team lost a number of key contributors from 2019’s roster, most notably setter Sedona Hansen and Tessa Grubbs, who accounted for almost twice as many kills as the team’s leading returner, Danielle Mahaffey. Early on in 2020, Mahaffey and junior Raquel Perinar have made a jump in production to fill the gap from Grubbs’ departure with junior transfer Natalie Hayward helping to lead the offense with her 7.87 assists per set. On defense, Perinar’s 1.47 blocks per set rank third in the SEC currently, and senior libero Madison Coulter leads the conference with 4.20 digs per set.
ROBINSON POISED FOR All-AMERICAN CAMPAIGN
Mikayla Robinson has always been one to let her game talk for her, and as she prepares for the start of her senior season, the conversation is growing on a national level. On Oct. 8, she made the nine-woman preseason All-SEC team, building off a career year in 2019 that culminated in her first All-Southeast Region Team honor from the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) and her second year in a row making the postseason All-SEC team. The West Dundee, Ill. native has played in every single match for the Gamecocks through her first three seasons and recorded personal bests for kills per set, hitting percentage and blocks last season.
Currently, Robinson is just 58 blocks shy of the program’s rally-scoring-era ecord for total blocks in a career and is already in the program’s top 10 for kills and points scored in the era (since 2001). Before its cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Robinson had also earned a spot on the U.S. Women’s Volleyball Collegiate National Team’s gold roster, which was scheduled to train and compete side-by-side with the U.S. Women’s National Team ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Head Coach Tom Mendoza on Mikayla Robinson…
“I can’t think of very many student-athletes I’ve worked with that have had the growth over time that Robbie has had. She’s been a leader from a production standpoint because she’s a really good volleyball player, but to see her grow into someone her teammates and coaches refer to as a leader is impressive and I’m happy for her. She would let other people take that lead in the past and take a backseat but now she’s taking ownership of the group and that’s exciting to see. She’s taking care of her own business – academically, conditioning, nutrition – and showing our younger players what it takes to be successful.”
REFILLING THE BOX SCORE IN 2020
The Gamecocks have a good deal of seniority to replace after turning over the 2019 roster into the 2020-21 campaign. Gone are three seniors who started in over 100 matches in their time at Carolina (Claire Edwards, Courtney Koehler and Mikayla Shields) as well as two-year contributors Addie Bryant and Brittany McLean and four-year letterwinner Alicia Starr. Statistically, South Carolina graduated 59 percent of its kills, 77 percent of its aces, 73 percent of its digs and 59 percent of its total points scored from 2019’s roster.
GRADUATE DUO MAKING AN IMMEDIATE IMPACT
With such a large graduating class for the Gamecocks in 2019, the coaching staff turned to a pair of graduate transfers in the signing period to add some veteran experience to the locker room that features 11 players in either their freshman or sophomore years.
Mallory Dixon spent four year with Wisconsin, appearing in 20 matches in her first three seasons before sitting out the fall of 2019. She had plenty of postseason experience in Madison, making deep runs in the tournament highlighted by reaching the championship in 2019 and the regional final in 2018. Dixon has taken on the back-row setting role and currently leads the team with 7.07 assists per set and ranks second with 2.57 digs per set.
Kyla Manning moves to South Carolina after a stellar career at Coastal Carolina, and will carry on a family legacy as a Gamecock. Manning is the daughter of Barry Manning, who played in 121 games for the South Carolina men’s basketball team from 1989-92. In her three seasons as a Chanticleer, she totaled over 800 kills, 450 digs and 50 aces, and earned all-conference honors in 2018 and 2019. Her success has continued in the Garnet and Black, as she leads the team in kills and aces, ranks second in digs and is perfect in 61 serve receptions through the first two series of fall.
FRESHMAN CLASS BOOSTS DEPTH FOR 2020
After unprecedented back-to-back seasons with 20 or more wins and trips to the second round of NCAA tournament play, South Carolina volleyball is reloading with eight newcomers, including six incoming freshmen. Already this fall, two true freshmen made an impact in the starting lineup (Ruprich and Whitesides) and the other four have also seen playing time.
“I think our 2020 class has a little bit of everything a team needs to compete at this level,” said Mendoza. “Our first priority is tightening up our ball control and serve reception and I think we’ve done that with the defensive specialists and pin hitters we’ve brought in. Bringing in a talented middle to add depth to our group was key for us as well. These four-year freshmen are loaded with potential.”
CAITLIN CRAWFORD | Oconowomoc, Wis.
Coming from a strong region for prep volleyball, Crawford helped both her club and high school teams find success. She anchored the libero position and helped Oconomowoc reach the Wisconsin Division I state final in the fall, and despite a shortened club season the Milwaukee Sting 18’s team finished 26 out of 112 teams at the loaded 2020 Triple Crown Volleyball NIT tournament in February and also had a top-five finish at AAU nationals.
KIUNE FLETCHER | El Dorado, Trinidad and Tobago
Fletcher will carry on a family legacy at South Carolina, following in the footsteps of her cousin, Mikayla Shields. Fletcher is the youngest member of the Trinidad and Tobago national team, making the roster for the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship in Japan and the 2019 Pan American Cup. Despite being just 17 at the time, she was also named captain for the team’s NORCECA Women’s Continental Cup run.
ELLIE RUPRICH | Beverly Hills, Mich.
A multi-sport standout athlete out of Beverly Hills, Michigan, Ruprich is a 2019 AAU All-American and AVCA All-Region team member. She helped her Legacy Volleyball Club 18s team to the prestigious NIT Triple Crown title in February before the season was cut short, but had previously helped the team make the top five at AAU and USAV nationals in previous years.
JANNA SCHLAGETER | Norcross, Ga.
Schlageter will bring key physicality to the left side pin, after the Gamecocks graduated key reserves Britt McLean and Alicia Starr this year. Standing at 6-foot-2, she led her high school team with 570 kills and a .374 kill percentage in her senior season, and made the Georgia coaches all-state team for her efforts. On the club level, she competed for A5.
MADELINE SWENTOR | Chagrin Falls, Ohio
Swentor will be another Gamecock legacy starting in 2020, following her father David who played for the men’s soccer program. Swentor is an all-district honoree and school record holder for digs at Chagrin Falls, she averaged over five digs per set as the team’s libero in 2019. For her club team, Academy Volleyball Cleveland, she helped it reach USAV Junior Nationals three times, placing as high as fifth.
RILEY WHITESIDES | Greenville, S.C.
Whitesides will aim to be another standout player from the Upstate, joining the Gamecocks after stellar careers with Mauldin High School and Upward Stars volleyball club. At Mauldin, she was a three-time All-State honoree and a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year finalist. With Upward Stars, she was recognized individually as a 2015 AAU All-American, an AVCA All-Region member and made the Junior Volleyball Association’s watch list.
NOTHING SOPH-T ABOUT THEM
Despite the senior-laden 2019 roster, the Gamecocks were able to get key in-game reps to a big group of freshmen who are now prepping for a larger role going into their sophomore campaigns. Along with Weber working into the lineup at setter, Holly Eastridge came in as a front-row option on the right and proved to be a capable blocker and sneaky southpaw hitter in 2019. She played in 20 matches and totaled 48 kills and 21 blocks in that span. After a strong but abbreviated spring, she stepped into the lineup this fall and currently ranks fifth on the team in kills and third in blocks.
The Gamecock coaches credit McKenzie Moorman‘s late season surge as a key to the team’s postseason berth, as the outside hitter averaged 3.14 kills per set over a two week span that led to five-straight wins spanning from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10.
Camilla Covas and Kylee Stokes did not see as much time on the court, but both would impress the staff against high-level opponents during the freshmen campaigns. Stokes was thrown in to the team’s early season match at No. 12 Pittsburgh and finished two sets of work with a pair of kills and four blocks. Covas earned her first collegiate start at libero in the team’s win over Auburn on Oct. 29 and responded with a career game. She was perfect on 24 serve receptions, dropped in a career-high four aces on serve and totaled 14 digs.
RUPRICH IMPRESSES IN COLLEGIATE DEBUT
Freshman middle Ellie Ruprich collected the fall’s first Freshman of the Week honor from the Southeastern Conference on Oct. 19. Over two matches at Georgia, the Beverly Hills, Mich. native led the team with 19 total blocks and added 16 kills over the seven sets against the Bulldogs. She is the sixth Gamecock in program history to earn Freshman of the Week honors.
In her debut match, Ruprich had a hand in nine of the team’s 14 total blocks over three sets in a sweep of the Bulldogs, also adding six kills with just one attacking error. The nine blocks ties her with Belita Salters (vs. Auburn, 10/21/2007) for most total blocks in a three-set match in the rally-scoring era (since 2001).
She then achieved an impressive milestone early in her career on Sunday, bagging her first collegiate double-double behind 10 kills and 10 total blocks (three solo) in just four sets. It was the highest block total for a four-set match since 2016 for South Carolina. Her offensive numbers were equally strong over the two matches, as her .438 hitting percentage on 32 swings led the team and her 16 kills (2.29 per set) were fourth highest.
Head Coach Tom Mendoza on Ruprich…
“Ellie has been working really hard to be prepared to compete at this level and there’s still a lot of room for her to continue getting better. We challenged her to be impactful and not blend into the match so I’m really happy for her that she was able to get off to such a great start.”
KIUNE’s CRAZY JOURNEY TO COLUMBIA
The outbreak of the coronavirus had an unintended effect on Kiune Fletcher‘s journey to becoming a Gamecock. Signing with the team in November out of Trinidad and Tobago, Fletcher found herself unable to come stateside to join her teammates on report day in August.
The U.S. embassy on the island was closed due to the virus, and even after it reopened, flights leaving were few and far between. Fletcher was unable to join her teammates until the second week of September, just days before a NCAA deadline that would have ruled her ineligible to compete for the year.
Fletcher brings a unique story to the team. She follows in the footsteps of her cousin, Mikayla Shields, who told the coaching staff about her and recommended she come to a South Carolina summer camp while visiting family in the states. Fletcher is the youngest member of the Trinidad and Tobago national team, making the roster for the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship in Japan and the 2019 Pan American Cup. Despite being just 17 years old at the time, she was also named captain for the team’s NORCECA Women’s Continental Cup run.
2019 SEASON NOTABLES
- The Gamecocks’ 11 win in SEC play were the most since 2008.
- Tom Mendoza is the first Gamecock head coach since Kim Hudson in 1993 to guide the team to postseasons in each of their first two seasons. He does stand alone as the only coach in program history to win a postseason match in back-to-back seasons.
- The Gamecocks posted double-digit conference wins in each of Mendoza’s first two seasons; the last stretch with back-to-back years at 10 wins or more for Carolina was 2001-02.
- South Carolina stunned No. 10 Colorado St. in five sets during the first round of the NCAA tournament, the first win over a team ranked in the top 10 nationally since Sept. 17, 2006 (No. 6 Florida).
- After the season, senior Mikayla Shields made program history after making the AVCA’s Division I All-America third team.
- Shields and junior Mikayla Robinson earned All-SEC honors, making the 18-woman team together for the second year in a row. Shield is the first three-time All-SEC honoree since Cole in 2006; Robinson collected her second all-conference honor.
- Robinson enjoyed a career year on offense and defense, totaling 2.45 kills and 1.17 blocks per set with a team-high .337 hitting percentage which stands as the fourth-highest for a single season in the program’s rally-scoring era (highest since 2008). The junior’s 132 total blocks (26 solo) were the second-most by any member of the program in the rally-scoring era.
- In conference matches only, Robinson totaled 96 blocks, more than any conference rival despite the team playing the second-fewest sets (61) in SEC play. Those 96 blocks in conference matches only are more than any member of the program in the rally-scoring era, she also set the record for solo blocks (18).
- Jess Vastine enjoyed a breakout junior season, recording career highs in every major statistical category in 2019. She had more kills, blocks and service aces than her first two seasons combined, and also led the team in service receptions.
- Three different players accounted for weekly SEC player of the week honors in 2019: Claire Edwards (defensive), McKenzie Moorman (freshman) and Mikayla Robinson (2x defensive, player of the week once). Prior to 2019, the Gamecock never had more than three weekly honors in a single season.
In Head Coach Tom Mendoza’s tenure with the team…
- Home is where the heart is. The Gamecocks are 23-5 at the Carolina Volleyball Center in Mendoza’s first two seasons. The team had lost five or more home matches for nine consecutive seasons before 2018.
- September has been the team’s best month, combining for a 17-3 mark in the two seasons. The highlight came in 2018 with a perfect 9-0 record in September, the first Gamecock squad since 1983 to do so.
- South Carolina steps up big on Sundays, with a combined 15-4 record on that day of the week.
- Always a wise strategy to start fast, the Gamecocks are 36-4 when winning the first set of a match.
- In five-set matches, the team holds an 11-3 record.
- The offense has out-hit opponents 42 times and have lost just two times when recording a higher hitting percentage.
- Aces have been a key to victory; in the two seasons under Mendoza, the Gamecocks are 32-3 when matching or surpassing the opposition in aces. It takes high risk to earn aces, but even in games where it committed more service errors, the Gamecocks still own a 20-17 record.
- Finding success away from home is trending up. Under Mendoza, the Gamecocks are 20-18 in road or neutral matches. In the five seasons prior to that, they were just 30-46 (.395). In 2019 the team’s combined record away from home was 10-9, the first time being over .500 away from home in back-to-back seasons since 2001-02.
ALL TIME RECORDS
- South Carolina holds an 840-653 (.561) all-time record, dating back to 1973. The team’s 800th win came on Aug. 25, 2018 against Clemson.
- The Gamecocks joined the SEC for volleyball in 1991, and have an all-time conference record of 207-278 (.427). The 200th SEC win came on Nov. 8, 2019 at Mississippi State.
- In matches in the Carolina Volleyball Center, Carolina is 213-116 (.647) overall and 110-99 (.526) in SEC matches. The CVC’s 200th win came on Nov. 16, 2018 against Ole Miss.
- Tom Mendoza became the program’s 13th head coach on Jan. 3, 2018. This is his fifth season overall as a head coach, with a career record of 90-41 and a record of 43-23 at South Carolina. He has led his teams to the NCAA tournament in all four years as a head coach.