Volleyball Wraps Up Fall Schedule With Midweek Series Against Florida
The Gamecocks are looking for their first win over the Gators since 2006
COLUMBIA, S.C. – An abbreviated fall schedule comes to a close this week for South Carolina volleyball, as it hosts No. 4 Florida for home matches Wednesday and Thursday. This will be the end of the fall schedule for the Gamecocks (4-2), with an anticipated spring season still to be determined. Fans can follow along with broadcasts on the SEC Network for Wednesday’s 8 p.m. first serve, and Thursday’s finale will be on the SEC Network+ web stream starting at 3 p.m. Thursday will also be senior day for Kaely Ann Thompson, a three-year member of the program.
Volleyball’s home events will have a reduced seating capacity that does not allow for general admission ticketing this fall. Based on the Sporting Event Exemption plan that was approved by the Department of Commerce in July, the Carolina Volleyball Center is permitted to open with a reduced capacity, but it will not be able to accommodate outside fan attendance.
GAMECOCK VOLLEYBALL RETURNS TO THE NATIONAL POLLS
South Carolina earned the No. 15 ranking in the AVCA’s weekly coaches poll, announced on Nov. 4. It was 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. The program’s highest ranking ever was 17th, which came on Oct. 1, 2001. While this current ranking comes in higher, the current coaches poll ranks only the top 15 teams in the country based on the current conferences competing – the ACC, Big 12, SEC, and Sun Belt.
TENNESSEE SERIES RECAP
In its final road trip of the fall, South Carolina split its two matches in Knoxville. In Friday’s opener, the team struggled on offense, hitting a season-low .116 in a four-set loss. The Tennessee offense was disciplined all night, committing just six unforced (unblocked) attacking errors. Conversely, the Gamecocks had 28 errors with Tennessee recording 12 total blocks. Mikayla Robinson’s career-high 16 kills led the offense and Camilla Covas’ career high 20 digs was a highlight for the defense.
The team responded in a big way to cap the weekend, sweeping Tennessee on Saturday. The Gamecock defense posted 10 total blocks, nine of which freshman Ellie Ruprich had a hand in, and on offense the team committed 13 fewer errors than the opposition. Riley Whitesides led the attack with 12 kills and three other hitters went for seven or more kills in the match. South Carolina has won eight of the last 12 meetings in the series with Tennessee, four of those wins coming in Knoxville.
Head Coach Tom Mendoza on Tennessee…
“We still have some newcomers just getting used to how difficult it is to beat a good SEC team on the road, I think we have a little bit better appreciation of that after yesterday when we just didn’t come out and play the way we needed to. Yes, the result was better today but I was really excited to just see the way the team played, they’re a lot of fun to watch when we’re playing like that. I like our chances against anybody when we’re competing and working together as a group like that.”
The Gators have not dropped a single set so far this fall, entering the week with a 4-0 record with sweeps of Auburn and Alabama. Florida returned five starters from 2019’s roster, a season where the Gators finished as co-SEC champions with a 27-5 overall record. The roster got even deeper with the addition of T’ara Ceasar, who sat out last season after transferring in from Georgia. In only 56 matches in Athens, Ceasar put away 840 total kills and is resuming a similar pace in Gainesville. She currently leads the team with 4.25 kills per set, followed closely behind by fellow left-side pin Thayer Hall (3.58 kills/set). While the offense remains potent, it is Florida’s defense that has been impressive through its first two series. The Gators have held opponents to a .095 hitting percentage, the lowest mark in the country. Five different individuals already in double-digits for blocks, and the team’s 3.46 blocks per set also leads all active NCAA teams. The back line of the defense has been equally strong, yielding just five aces in 12 sets and averaging over 14 digs per set.
Florida’s 23-match winning streak in the all-time series with South Carolina is the longest active losing streak for the Gamecocks and second-longest in program history behind only a 25-game losing streak to Georgia (Oct. 5, 1979 to Sept. 24, 1995).
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. 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.
Currently, Robinson is just 54 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). Through six matches, her offense is at a career-high pace; she is averaging 3.00 kills per set with a hitting percentage of .394.
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 IMPACT FOR CAROLINA
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 a 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 7.33 assists per set and ranks third with 2.48 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 (65), ranks second in digs (2.52 per set) and is perfect in 108 serve receptions through the first three series of fall.
FRESHMAN CLASS BOOSTS DEPTH FOR 2020-21
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.
Crawford anchored the libero position and helped Oconomowoc High School 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 follows in the footsteps of her cousin, Mikayla Shields. She 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.
Standing at 6-foot-2, Schlageter 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. 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 fourth on the team in kills and second 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. In the three matches coming into the Florida series, Covas earned the starting libero role and has averaged 4.36 digs per set with six service aces and just one serve reception error on 69 attempts.
SERVICE (RECEPTION) WITH A SMILE
Despite a lineup that features four new starters and a new libero, South Carolina’s coaching staff have been pleased with the instant chemistry of its serve defense this fall. The Gamecocks have five individuals who have 25 or more serve receptions through their first six matches, and that group has committed just 11 errors together in 374 total chances – a reception percentage of .971. Among that group are newcomers Kyla Manning and Riley Whitesides, who also play all six rotations and rank first and third on the team in kills, respectively.
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. 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 on Sunday, bagging her first collegiate double-double behind 10 kills and 10 total blocks (three solo) in 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.
WHEN THE GAMECOCKS WIN…
- The team is out-hitting the opposition .244 to .131. The left-side attack is the key with Kyla Manning and Riley Whitesides hitting .242 in wins with a combined total of 6.69 kills per set.
- Success behind the service line has been stark; in matches won, the Gamecocks have almost twice as many aces as their opponents (19-10) and average 1.46 aces per set.
- The back line of the defense has been effective in wins, averaging almost three more digs per set in wins compared to losses.
WHEN THE GAMECOCKS LOSE…
- The defense is allowing opponents to hit .308 in the two losses losses. Under Coach Tom Mendoza, the team has won only three matches where it recorded a lower hitting percentage than its opponent.
- Opponents have exploited the serve game to an extreme degree in losses, averaging a full ace per set more (1.62 to 0.62) while committing just two more errors.
- The left side attack has scuffled in losses, with Manning and Whitesides combining for a .068 hitting percentage.
- Opponents actually average fewer blocks per set in Gamecock defeats, but South Carolina averages 3.13 unforced attacking errors per set in losses.
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, though, as the only coach in program history to also 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).
- 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.
MENDOZA’S TRENDING TOPICS
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 37-4 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 43 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 33-4 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 21-19 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 841-654 (.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 208-279 (.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 91-42 and a record of 44-24 at South Carolina. He has led his teams to the NCAA tournament in all four years as a head coach.