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Carolina Challenge Tournament Brings Home Games Back to Wheeler Beach
Beach Volleyball  . 

Carolina Challenge Tournament Brings Home Games Back to Wheeler Beach

The Gamecocks host four regional rivals for a two-day tournament starting Saturday

COLUMBIA, S.C. – For the first time in 700 days, home games will return to Wheeler Beach when South Carolina beach volleyball hosts the Carolina Challenge March 13-14. The 16th-ranked Gamecocks are 5-3 for the season. Saturday will feature an 11 a.m. dual with Mercer and 5 p.m. dual with Southern Miss, Sunday has an 11 a.m. dual against Jacksonville and the weekend wraps up at 5 p.m. Sunday against Coastal Carolina.
As the beach volleyball program sets for its first home event since April 2019, policies regarding fan attendance have changed in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. This spring, attendance at home matches is limited only to player and staff pass lists for both South Carolina and visiting opponents. General attendance for fans is not allowed at this time.
“We are so excited to get to play at home, it’s an unbelievable experience and privilege to play on Wheeler Beach,” head coach Moritz Moritz said. “At the same time, it is imperative we continue to ensure the safety and wellness of our teams, staff and families.” 
“We love having Wheeler Beach as a place for fans to bring the family and spend the day watching great volleyball and, once we are able to, it’s going to be mean even more to see them back cheering us on. It will have a different feel this spring, but we are just grateful for the opportunity to be back here competing together.”
Pass list entrance is only permitted on the north side of the facility, as there will be a strict bubble for teams, staff and game day personnel that includes the sand surface. Masks must be worn at all times in the facility.
The first opponent of the weekend, Mercer, enters with a 5-6 overall record. This is the first meeting since 2017 for the two sides, with South Carolina holding a 4-1 record in the all-time series. Saturday night’s opponent, Southern Miss, is the newest member of the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association. The two teams have met only once, with the Gamecocks winning 4-1 at the conference tournament in 2019. The Golden Eagles are currently 1-7, but six of their eight duals so far have come against teams ranked in the top-20 nationally.
Jacksonville is 2-4 overall this season, Sunday will be the first meeting between the two programs since 2018. The Gamecocks lead that all-time series, 4-2. Sunday’s finale against Coastal Carolina is a rematch from last weekend, where South Carolina swept the Chanticleers on their home sand. The Gamecocks are 7-0 in the all-time series between the in-state squads.
Through two weekend of action, senior Jess Vastine and junior Jordan Smith remain undefeated at the number four position of the lineup. That 8-0 record includes five wins against nationally ranked opponents and five wins against conference rivals. The eight wins in a row marks the best start to a season for a Gamecock pair since 2017, when Carly Schnieder and Julia Mannisto got a 9-0 start on the way to a 22-10 overall record together.
Vastine now ranks 10th in program history for career starts (with 69) and for career conference wins (14). Smith now has a career record of 13-7, getting her first real taste of action last season in an abbreviated spring when she went 5-6 at number five with teammate Morgyn Greer.
As year eight of Gamecock beach volleyball gets underway, the team will have a new look to the roster. More than half of the 24-woman roster are either in their first or second season, including six true freshmen and one mid-year graduate transfer. What the team may appear to lack in experience on the roster is more than made up by the experience on its coaching staff. Head coach Moritz Moritz and assistant coach RJ Abella have been together since the program’s first season back in 2014. Across all of collegiate beach volleyball, the duo is currently tied only with defending champion UCLA (Stein Metzger and Jenny Johnson Jordan) in terms of longest tenure together as a staff.
The team earned its first-ever ranking by the AVCA on March 6, 2017, and have not left the polls since. South Carolina entered the 2021 season with the No. 14 spot in the Jan. 27 coaches preseason poll, marking 37 polls in a row. The Gamecocks peaked at No. 8 in the polls in 2018 and enter this weekend at No. 16.
South Carolina welcomed its first grad transfer in 2015, when Jade Hayes came to Columbia from UCF. In the years since, the Gamecocks have one of the best track records in the country when it comes to developing indoor players for the beach game.
This season, three indoor standouts will compete for the Garnet and Black. Madison Brabham was a crossover athlete with Texas A&M-Kingsville, earning All-America conference player of the year honors as a senior for the indoor team but also claiming AVCA Top Flight honors after going 22-8 overall and 21-5 in the No. 2 flight for the Javelinas’ beach team in 2019. Morgyn Greer has a juniors beach volleyball background, but played indoor exclusively for four seasons at Florida, playing in 54 career matches.  
The duo made the starting lineup from day one in 2020, combining for 11 wins in an abbreviated spring and moved the group past an impressive milestone – 200 combined wins for the nine. Nicole Deobler is the third graduate on the roster, joining in December after three seasons at Siena College in upstate New York. Deobler, a California native, played in 62 games at Siena, totaling over 400 kills and 350 career digs over three seasons.
Entering her final season as the team’s active career wins leader, Katie Smith has earned her place in the program’s record book. The West Chester, Ohio native has 76 dual wins, already ranking her second in program history, and her .651 winning percentage in duals puts her third all-time (min. 30 duals). What’s most impressive about those totals has been how she has earned it; of Smith’s 116 career duals, 42 have come at the number one position and 71 have come at number two. Smith’s 24 career wins at number one is the second-most in program history, and her 51 wins at number two is the most in program history and more than the second- and third-place Gamecocks combined. Her success garnered Smith AVCA Top Flight honors in 2018 and 2019. For her efforts, Smith made the 10-woman CCSA Preseason All-Conference team, which was announced on Feb. 24.
South Carolina beach volleyball’s 2020 recruiting class received national recognition over the summer, as the Gamecocks’ six-woman class was ranked tenth in the country by Volleyball Magazine. Additionally, three individuals from the class earned a spot in the magazine’s Girl’s Fab 30 team.
Joining the Gamecocks for the 2020-21 school year are Samantha Ansel (Columbia, Ohio), Sophie Bengoechea (San Antonio, Texas), Jillian Gleason (North Bay, Ontario), Alyssa Keller (Winter Garden, Fla.), Hannah Mackenhausen (San Diego, Calif.) and Lizzie Thompson (Roswell, Georgia). Bengoechea, Keller and Mackenhausen all made the Fab 30 team. 
In September, Bengoechea and Keller were also named to the AVCA’s High School Beach All-America second team. The Gamecocks now have seven past honorees on the roster and have eight total in the seven years the award has existed.
“It’s exciting to see to see how fast the youth game is growing in beach volleyball, I think this class is talented and ready to make an instant impact on our roster,” head coach Moritz Moritz said. “We love the mix of size, speed and volleyball IQ that these young women bring to the table. This upcoming season may feature the deepest roster our program has ever had, I’m hopeful that our returners will push this group as much as I know this group will push our returners.”
Already this season, all three of the “Fab 30” freshmen have cracked the team’s travel squad. Keller is current 4-4 all the way up at the number two position with partner Abby Carroll, Mackenhausen is 5-3 with Madison Brabham at number three, and Bengoechea made the travel team for the Coastal Carolina Invitational weekend and went 2-0 as an exhibition athlete.
The opening weekend of the season sets the tone for another challenging schedule for South Carolina in 2021. All four opponents at the Stetson Spring Fling are inside the top 15 of the AVCA coaches preseason poll. Among the team’s current 27-game schedule, 11 games are against teams in the current poll.
On the team’s 2021 schedule
“This schedule was challenging to put together, we had to maintain a level of quality opponents that best prepare us to pursue our goal of winning in the postseason while also keeping our team as safe as possible,” head coach Moritz Moritz said. “As we get ready for this season, we are preparing to be the best versions of ourselves because this year, more than any, we need to be ready for unpredictability across the net from us. 
It’s still fresh in our minds how we were progressing last season before we were stopped. I think it will be cathartic for us when we’re finally standing with our feet in the sand ready to play a match. We are really going to cherish that moment, because we truly can appreciate how fortunate we are to be together as a family playing a sport we all love so much.”

  • The team played 12 matches before the spring season was ended due to the outbreak of COVID-19, accumulating a 5-7 overall record with 10 of those matches coming against nationally ranked opponents.
  • Among those five wins, three came against teams ranked in the top-15 nationally: No. 4 Southern California, No. 14 Long Beach State and No. 10 Stetson.
  • Katie Smith became the third member of the program ever to reach 75 career wins overall, teaming with Skylar Allen for a win in a 3-2 victory over No. 14 Long Beach St. on March 7.
  • 2020 was the first time in program history that the team did not play a single home match; when the Gamecocks host the Carolina Challenge on March 13-14 it will be the first time at Wheeler Beach since April 13, 2019.
  • Off the sand, the team had its strongest year to date in the classroom. The Gamecocks led the entire South Carolina athletics department in team GPA for both the fall and spring semesters, topping out with a spring GPA of 3.947 that was a program record. Only Georgia State and Stanford can match the Gamecocks’ current streak of AVCA team academic honors – currently six – dating back to the 2014-15 school year.
  • South Carolina junior Jess Vastine was recognized by The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as an All-American Athlete for her efforts with the indoor and beach volleyball teams following the 2020 season. Vastine is the first-ever honoree for the Gamecock indoor program, and second for the beach volleyball program (Carly Schnieder in 2019).


  • South Carolina holds a 116-76 all-time program record, dating back to 2014.
  • The Gamecocks joined the CCSA for volleyball in 2016, and have an all-time conference record of 36-25.
  • In matches at Wheeler Beach, Carolina is 51-17 (.735).
  • Moritz Moritz is entering his eighth season as head coach of the Gamecocks, spanning the entire young history of the program. He earned his 100th career win against Texas A&M-Kingsville on April 6, 2019.