Gamecock Volleyball Opens Fall Season With Two-Day Home Tournament
COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina volleyball begins its fall campaign on Friday, year five under head coach Tom Mendoza, when it hosts the Carolina Classic two-day tournament. The Gamecocks face Sacred Heart and Omaha on Friday at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., respectively, then wrap up the opening weekend against Winthrop at 4:30 on Saturday. All three South Carolina games will be broadcast on the SEC Network+ online service, Paul MacDonald and Dave Weinstein will be on the call.
For fans, a ticket purchased for the 10 a.m. match on Friday will also be good for admission to the 7:30 match later that day.
2021 TEAM NOTABLES
- The Gamecocks faced one of the nation’s toughest schedules, battling nine teams in the 2021 NCAA tournament – including five games total against schools earning a top-16 seed – and 10 total matches against AVCA top-25-ranked teams.
- The 10 games against ranked teams are the most in program history. The previous high was eight, done in 1995, 2003 and 2010.
- Kyla Manning ended the season with a team-high 357 kills. That is the 10th-most in a single season in the rally-scoring era and are the most for a Gamecock outside hitter since Juliette Thévenin’s 466 kills in 2013.
- Manning also led the team with eight double-doubles and finished third on the team in digs.
- Two Gamecocks played in every single set for the team – both freshmen. Lauren McCutcheon started all 29 matches along with playing all 103 sets, setter Claire Wilson largely would rotate in at setter but did make six starts during the season and did not miss a single set.
- All five of South Carolina’s freshmen saw time on the court this season, and four will likely play a major role in the team’s 2022 campaign: Oby Anadi, Morgan Carter, McCutcheon and Wilson.
- Carter’s team-high 299 digs was the second highest total for a Gamecock freshman in the rally-scoring era, behind only Aubrey Ezell’s 309 in 2015. Her average of 3.22 digs per set is the best by was the second best in the program’s all-time history.
- With 26 starts at libero, Carter was the first true freshman to start as the team’s main libero since the position was first introduced in college volleyball in 2002.
- Also on defense, Ellie Ruprich collected 112 total blocks to lead the team for the second year in a row. She is just the third Gamecock in the 2000s to lead the team in blocks as a freshman and a sophomore, joining Darian Dozier (2012/13) and Mikayla Robinson (2017/18).
SCOUTING THE PIONEERS
Sacred Heart is a three-time defending champion of the Northeast Conference and enter 2022 as the unanimous preseason favorite to repeat. Four-time NEC Setter of the Year Sarah Ciszek returns for year five, highlighting a group of five returning starters from 2021. Ciszek is joined by fellow 2021 all-conference honorees Reghan Palanchi (middle), Dominique Felix (pin) and Emma Smallcomb (libero).
On offense, the Pioneers graduated their kills leader but still return four others who totaled over 200 kills in 2021. At the net on defense, Palanchi averaged over a block per set and totaled 21 solo stuffs in 2021. On the back, Sacred Heart’s defense returns its top five digs leaders, each surpassing 250 digs last fall with Smallcomb’s 4.07 per set leading the team.
SCOUTING THE MAVERICKS
Omaha has been a consistently solid program since making the move to Division I in 2011, finishing near the top of their conference since joining the Summit League and going 34-12 overall in league play in the three previous seasons under current head coach Matt Buttermore. In the preseason conference poll, the Mavericks were picked to finish third.
The team is led by returning Summit League Setter of the Year Sami Clarkson, who led the team with 11.18 assists per set and 30 service aces while also pitching in solid defensive numbers (48 blocks, 218 digs). Offensively, Omaha did lose its kills leader from 2021, but junior Marriah Buss ranked second with 315 kills (2.97 per set) and figures to take on an even larger role in year three. Defensively, the Mavs are looking to find leaders after graduating their two top blockers and their 2021 libero, but will turn to senior Jaiden Centeno (3.93 digs per set in 2021) to rally the defense this fall.
SCOUTING THE EAGLES
Winthrop is in a unique transition year, with former head coach Chuck Rey moving into the Athletics Director role in the department and stepping away from his coaching position. Heather Gearhart takes over the lead role for 2022 and inherits a team picked to finish third in the Big South and coming off a 18-10 record in 2021.
The Eagles were a hard team to score on last fall, ranking fourth in the nation with 18.75 digs per set and allowing a hitting percentage of just .160 to opponents (good for 17th nationally). Despite its dig total, no one individual ranked in the top-150 nationally, it was a true defense by committee effort with four individuals averaging over three digs per set and no one above Madison Gorniak’s average of 3.67 per set. She returns for 2022 along with fellow defensive specialist Leah Metzger (3.22 digs/set in 2021).
It will be the offense that’s a relative unknown early this fall, after the Eagles graduated three of their top five kills leaders. Sophomore Karli Shepherd is the leading returner for kills, with 256 in 88 sets in her first season, junior Brookelynn Thomas was right behind her with 189 kills in 67 sets. Winthrop also graduated its primary setter from 2021, but Isabel Schaefbauer did see time in the role, passing out 160 assists in 28 sets.
Four true freshman begin their collegiate careers this fall, three from the Palmetto State and a fourth from the Rust Belt:
Megan Holland (6-4 | Middle Blocker | Nazareth, Pa.)
- A four-year varsity starter for her high school and was an all-conference honoree for the 2021 season.
- Named to her district’s all-star roster in 2020.
- Based on available records, she is just the third member of the program to hail from Pennsylvania, the previous two were Kim Brown (1981-84) and Sarah Morgan (2002-05).
“I think her movement is pretty special … We’re really excited to see her learning curve, get her in the gym, get her up to speed with the tempo that the game is played at the SEC level and then just watch her hopefully flourish.”– head coach Tom Mendoza
Alayna Johnson (6-1 | Outside Hitter | Kershaw, S.C.)
- Enrolled early at South Carolina, joining the team for the 2022 spring semester.
- Was a five-year starter playing high school volleyball with her father Andy as her head coach, winning four region titles in a row.
- Helped North Central High School make its first trip to state championship in almost 30 years as a senior.
- Five-time Region Player of the Year and five-time all-state selection.
- Totaled over 2,000 kills and 1,000 digs in her high school career.
- Named to the 2021 American Volleyball Coaches Association’s (AVCA) All-America First Team.
- A 2021 finalist for South Carolina’s Gatorade Player of the Year award.
- Named to the Junior Volleyball Association’s 2021 All-National Team, representing the graduating class of 2022.
“She’s good at everything which, for a six-rotation pin, is a pretty good quality. She’s comfortable in serve receive, she reads the game, she betters the ball, she makes her teammates better and you start to say ‘okay, well, where’s the weakness?’ When she’s good at all those things it helps the team in a lot of different ways.”– head coach Tom Mendoza
Tireh Smith (6-0 | Outside/Opposite | Moncks Corner, S.C.)
- Earned three varsity letters at Stratford High School, leading the Knights to runner-up finishes in the region two times.
- Two-time All Region and All-State honoree, as both a junior and senior
- Also trained with MVP Volleyball Club, based out of Mt. Pleasant.
“Tireh’s athleticism and work ethic are going to give her the opportunity to be successful no matter who is on the other side of the net. She’s another high academic, high character young woman who will fit in great with the players we’ve already signed in her class. We are very excited to get her in the gym working to reach her potential.”– head coach Tom Mendoza
Kimmie Thompson (5-11 | Setter | Simpsonville, S.C.)
- Played five seasons for St. Joseph’s Catholic, leading the Knights to the 2A state championship in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021.
- Helped her club team reach the championship game at AAU nationals in 2021.
- Earned a spot on the AAU All-America team in 2021 as well.
- Part of the JVA’s All-National Team watch list from 2019-22.
“She’s competitive and highly skilled, really good setter, really good leader, another coach’s daughter so she’s been around the game for a long time, thinking the game through, trying to find ways to put her teammates in great situations. I think she brings that great balance of competitiveness with being able to pull a team together and rally a group and have them all unite for a singular cause. That’s something, especially at the setter position, that’s incredibly valuable.”– head coach Tom Mendoza
PAIR OF TRANSFERS READY TO MAKE INSTANT IMPACT
Along with the quartet of true freshmen, South Carolina’s coaching staff added a veteran presence to the roster for the fall. Joining the Gamecocks are graduate transfers Jenna Hampton (Penn State) and Dalaney Hans (Georgia) who combined for 182 career games played at their former schools.
Hampton made the AVCA all-region team and was second team All-Big 10 last fall as the libero for the Nittany Lions, leading the Big 10 with 4.83 digs per set. Her reputation up north followed her to Columbia, as she represented the team on the SEC coaches’ preseason all-conference team released in July.
Hans is staying in the SEC for her new squad, coming from Georgia where she played in 70 matches. She enjoyed her best seasons in the final two campaigns in Athens, combining for 784 assists and 259 digs in 157 sets between her junior and senior seasons.
SOPHOMORE TRIO READY TO BUILD OFF YEAR ONE
South Carolina’s success in 2021 was thanks in large part to the immediate impact of its freshman class, most notably setter Claire WIlson, pin hitter Lauren McCutcheon and defensive specialist Morgan Carter. Wilson and McCutcheon were the only two Gamecocks to play in every set last fall, and Carter worked her way into the main libero role – the first freshman in program history to serve as the full-time libero. Both McCutcheon and Wilson missed some time between last fall and now due to injury, but the trio’s overall growth from freshmen to sophomores will undoubtedly be a major factor in the team’s success again this fall.
CLAIRE EDWARDS JOINS THE STAFF FOR 2022 SEASON
Head coach Tom Mendoza added a familiar face to the bench for the fall, welcoming in alumna and four-year starter Claire Edwards as the team’s new technical coordinator. Edwards, a Columbia native had previously worked with the Columbia Fireflies minor league team in town after graduating in the spring of 2019. In the program’s rally-scoring era (since 2001), Edwards ranks 6th in career hitting percentage (.256), 4th in total blocks (316) and 8th in total matches played (116). She was a major piece of the team’s turnaround once Mendoza took over in 2018, helping the team make NCAA tournament appearances in both 2018 and 2019.
Freshman setter Kimmie Thompson is the third generation of the family to reach the Division I level, following the footsteps of her sisters Kaely and Kyra. Kaely walked on at South Carolina in head coach Tom Mendoza’s first season and played for three seasons total with 20 games played. Middle sister Kyra is currently a member of the beach volleyball team at the College of Charleston.
BATTLE TESTED IN THE BACK ROW
South Carolina’s identity this season will likely be defense-first in the early part of the fall, thanks to a wealth of experienced passers. Leading the way is Jenna Hampton, who compiled over 1,000 career digs at Penn State and a Big 10-leading 4.83 digs per set in 2021. She joins a group of returner who accounted for 70 percent of Carolina’s digs last fall, including three individuals who had 150 digs or more: Morgan Carter (299 digs), Lauren McCutcheon (226) and Riley Whitesides (164).
It isn’t just digs that represent the experience coming back this fall; the Gamecocks bring back 73.7 percent of the serve receptions from 2021, a campaign that finished with a team reception percentage of .935. McCutcheon accounted for 32 percent of the team’s total receptions for the season, finishing with a personal reception percentage of .944 despite competing as a true freshman. Carter, also a 2021 freshman, was responsible for 19 percent of the total receptions in the serve game and enjoyed a .943 reception percentage.
Hampton surely won’t be the weak link in the serve game if her Penn State career is any indication. Over four seasons, Hampton was aced just 53 times on 1,584 total receptions, good for a career reception percentage of .967.
STATUS QUO IN THE CLASSROOM
The program improved its streak to 13 seasons in a row earning the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Team Academic Award, announced on July 18. The Gamecocks have put 10 or more individuals on the SEC’s Fall Academic Honor Roll for six seasons in a row and placed 17 total members on either the Fall or First-Year Academic Honor Rolls in the 2021-22 school year. This all comes on top of an ambitious list of majors that spans the world-renowned business school, sports science fields and into engineering and education.
MENDOZA’S TRENDING TOPICS
In Head Coach Tom Mendoza’s tenure with the team…
- Consistency is conference play has been key. The team is 39-37 in SEC play dating back to 2018. Prior to Mendoza’s arrival, the Gamecocks did not have a winning record in conference play from 2009-2017. The last time the program had a winning SEC record in three consecutive seasons was 2000-2002.
- Home is where the heart is. The Gamecocks are 38-16 at the Carolina VB Center in Mendoza’s three-plus 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 25-5 mark. 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 17-7 record on that day of the week.
- Start fast! The Gamecocks are 55-8 when winning the first set but are 11-37 when losing it.
- In five-set matches, the team holds an 17-7 record. In the three years prior, the Gamecocks were just 7-8 in five-setters.
- The offense has out-hit opponents 66 times and have lost just six times when recording a higher hitting percentage.
- Aces have been a key to victory; under Mendoza the Gamecocks are 49-11 when matching or surpassing opponents in aces.
- Finding success away from home is trending up. Under Mendoza, the Gamecocks are 28-29 in road or neutral matches. In the five seasons prior to that, they were 30-46 (.395).
ALL TIME RECORDS
- South Carolina holds an 863-677 (.560) 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 256-317 (.430) in the 31st season as a member. The 200th SEC win came on Nov. 8, 2019 at Mississippi State.
- The team has a 17-14 overall record in the opening game of SEC play.
- In matches in the Carolina Volleyball Center, opened in 1996, Carolina is 228-127 (.642) overall and 119-109 (.530) in SEC matches. The CVC’s 200th win came on Nov. 16, 2018 against Ole Miss.
- Tom Mendoza was introduced as the program’s 13th head coach on Jan. 3, 2018. This is his sixth season overall as a head coach, with a career record of 113-65 and a record of 66-47 at South Carolina. He has led his teams to the NCAA tournament in five of his six years as a head coach.