Volleyball Hosts Mississippi State for Mid-Week Match
COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina volleyball returns from an off week to prepare for a critical week of matches as the SEC season tips into the back half of the schedule. The Gamecocks (9-8, 3-4 SEC) will host Mississippi State (11-7, 4-4) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET, then end the week with a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU (10-8, 4-4) at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 23. Wednesday night will be on the SEC Network+, Sunday will be a national broadcast on the SEC Network.
WEEK THREE NOTABLES (AT TENNESSEE)
- Tennessee finished with a season-high 21 blocks in the first match of the weekend, including six in the fifth set alone. It is the second time in the last four matches that a Gamecock opponent went for over 20 blocks in a match.
- Just six games into SEC play, the Gamecocks played four five-set matches.
- Alayna Johnson led the offense with 14 kills in the series opener, a career high for the freshman. She had more kills Saturday than she had in her previous three matches combined.
- Jenna Hampton finished the first match with 28 digs, marking the fourth game in a row with 20 or more digs and her third time eclipsing 25 digs in a game so far this season. As a team, South Carolina’s 86 total digs are a season high and the most since recording 87 at LSU on Nov. 18, 2018.
- After not playing in the series opener, Kiune Fletcher had a strong afternoon in the Sunday rematch, highlighted by four kills in the third set on the way to a final line of eight kills and just two errors on 17 swings.
- Dalaney Hans had two service aces in the first set and finished with three for the match, her fourth time this season the setter had three or more aces in a single game. The combination of Hans and Camilla Covas – who led the team with four aces – helped the Gamecocks finish the day with a season-high nine aces as a team on Sunday. The previous high was eight, done three different times this fall.
- South Carolina’s blockers did not record their first denial of Tennessee until early in the third set in Sunday’s loss. Less than 24 hours after the two sides combined for 32 blocks, the teams had just nine on Sunday with the Volunteers commanding a 7-2 advantage.
- Tennessee’s .385 hitting percentage as a team in the Sunday match is the highest allowed by South Carolina this season, surpassing the .380 mark by North Carolina on Sept. 2. The Vols committed no errors in the first set, two in the second and five in set three.
SCOUTING THE BULLDOGS
Mississppi State has flirted with the top-25 throughout the season after a historic 2021 season. The Bulldogs currently stand at 4-4 in the SEC and 11-7 overall, coming off a pair of losses to Florida over the weekend. On offense, the team ranks fourth in the SEC for kills per set with three hitters already over 180 total kills. Leading the team is fifth-year senior Gabby Waden, who is in the midst of her third consecutive season with an average of 3.40 kills or more and a hitting percentage over .300. The team’s defensive strength is based on its passers; Mississippi State leads the SEC with an average of 15.39 digs per set and five individuals with over 100 digs already.
SCOUTING THE TIGERS
There’s no need for a rebuild in Baton Rouge, LSU is running strong under first-year head coach Tonya Johnson with marquee wins both in SEC play and during the non-conference season. The Tigers are also coming off a bye week and also have a mid-week game before meeting with the Gamecocks on Sunday, facing rival Alabama on the road. The Tigers have five attackers with 100 or more kills, led by Sanaa Dotson’s 282. Much like Mississippi State, LSU’s defense is led by its back line. Libero Ella Larkin leads the SEC with 4.39 digs per set and the team as a whole ranks fourth in the SEC with 14.69 digs per set. Anita Anwusi is the team’s top blocker with 74 (13 solo).
The team’s win over No. 12 Florida on Sept. 25 secured the fifth season in a row with at least one win over a top-25-ranked opponent. It is the longest streak since joining the SEC in 1991; the next closest streak was three years, from 2001-03. The team has eight top-25 wins in head coach Tom Mendoza’s five-year tenure; prior to his arrival in 2018, the program had just nine ranked wins in total in the 26-year since joining the SEC in 1991, going 9-110 (.076) between 1991-2017.
Over the last five matches…
- Defense has come first, South Carolina and the opposition are both hitting under .200 – the Gamecocks are at .172 and opponents close behind at .181.
- The serve reception numbers are close, with aces almost even (Carolina leads, 28-26) and opponents committing just two more errors on serve in the last five games. Dalaney Hans leads the team with nine aces and just four errors in this stretch, Camilla Covas is close behind with seven aces.
- Three hitters have 40 or more kills – McKenzie Moorman (63), Riley Whitesides (56) and Lauren McCutcheon (41) – but each of the three are hitting under .200.
- Jenna Hampton is averaging an astounding 5.52 digs per set during the last five matches, accounting for 38.5 percent of the team’s digs.
- While the Gamecocks have recorded strong blocking numbers, averaging 2.67 per set, it is the opposition’s net defense that has won the day. Two opponents (Georgia and Tennessee) have surpassed 20 total blocks in a match during this stretch and overall the five opponents are averaging 3.14 blocks per set.
JOHNSON OFFERS NEW LOOK TO LINEUP
Not every team has the benefit of adding a potential impact starter at the mid-point of the season, but South Carolina may have one with freshman Alayna Johnson. The freshman pin made her first collegiate start on Sunday, Oct. 2 against Missouri and finished with seven kills in the three-set sweep. She followed that with a team-high 14 kills at Tennessee on Oct. 8.
Johnson, a Kershaw, S.C. native, enrolled early at South Carolina, joining the team last January. She was a five-year varsity starter at North Central High School with her father Andy as her head coach, winning four region titles in a row. She was the driving force behind North Central making its first trip to the state championship in almost 30 years in her senior season.
Alayna finished high school as a five-time Region Player of the Year and five-time all-state selection, making the 2021 AVCA All-America First Team and 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,” head coach Tom Mendoza said after she joined the team. “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.”
DON’T HIT IT TO HAMPTON
Libero Jenna Hampton has raised her game another level in SEC play. Seven games into the conference season, Hampton has 143 digs and has been aced just five times while averaging 4.1 serve receptions per set. From Sept. 28 to Oct. 8, she had a stretch of four games in a row where she had at least 23 digs, giving her five total games with 20 or more digs this fall. Only three other Gamecocks have as many 20-dig games as Hampton during the rally-scoring era (since 2001): Aubrey Ezell (2017), Paige Wheeler (2011) and Hannah Lawing (2010). The last member of the program to have more 20-dig games than Hampton was Fernanda Laires, who had nine in 1996.
For the season in total, Hampton’s 286 total digs accounts for just a shade under 35 percent of the team’s dig total and are more than South Carolina’s second and third-ranked individuals combined. In serve reception, she is second on the roster with 294 total receptions (4.45 per set).
Going as far back as formal season stats are available – 1984 – Hampton is on pace to account for more digs than any other individual. Only 10 Gamecocks in program history have accounted for more than 25 percent of the team’s total digs in a single season and only two others have cracked 30 percent – Aubrey Ezell (34.17 percent, 2017) and Hannah Lawing (32.34, 2010).
ELLIE-VATING HER GAME
Junior Ellie Ruprich earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors on Monday, Sept. 12, coming on the heels of a two-game stretch where South Carolina swept a pair of matches with Cincinnati. It is Ruprich’s first defensive player of the week honor from the conference office, she previously was a two-time freshman of the week during the 2020 season.
Ruprich currently ranks second in the SEC and 17th nationally with an average of 1.40 blocks per set. It hasnt been just her defense that’s impressed this season, she also leads the team with a hitting percentage of .319. The strong numbers are a testament to a solid non-conference season; last fall Ruprich was hitting just .231 with 0.76 blocks per set in non-conference play before ramping up to a .277 hitting percentage with 1.29 blocks per set in 18 conference matches.
GRADUATE TRANSFERS MAKING AN INSTANT IMPACT
Along with a 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 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. So far this season, she’s as good as advertised, leading the team and ranking second in the SEC with 4.33 digs per set and set a career high at Clemson with 31 total digs.
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. Working alongside Claire Wilson at setter, Hans averages 5.11 assists per set, is second on the team with 105 digs and leads the team with 22 service aces and four double-doubles.
IT JUST MEANS “MOOR”
As head coach Tom Mendoza said after the team’s wins against Sacred Heart and Omaha on Friday, Aug. 26: “Kenz had one of the better days as an attacker that you could possibly ask for.” Senior McKenzie Moorman totaled 42 kills and a .478 hitting percentage over the team’s three wins in week one. Since 2001, only five other Gamecocks had 40 or more kills in the first three games of a season, but none of their hitting percentages came close to Moorman’s .478 clip.
It was the jumping-off point for a breakout season for Moorman. She leads the team in kills while also hitting .249. Her 203 kills in 66 sets to date are 22 more than her kill total from her first three seasons combined (124 sets, 52 matches played). Her hitting percentage is over 40 points higher than her career average entering 2022 (.207). Her defense is on the uptick as well, she already surpassed her career high for blocks in a season (27 in 2020-21) after only 12 games and currently has 45 total blocks and a career-high 24 digs as a front-row-only defender.
GAMECOCK NATION PACKS THE GYM
Gamecock fans are out in full force this season, South Carolina currently ranks 43rd nationally in average attendance (1,218) and 36th in total attendance (10,962). Those numbers rank fourth and fifth, respectively, among SEC schools, despite Carolina playing in one of the few volleyball-only facilities in the conference. Dating back to 2014, the Gamecocks volleyball program is averaging at least 1,000 fans per game every season.
BATTLE-TESTED IN THE BACK ROW
South Carolina’s identity this season is defense-first, 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 who had 150 digs or more: Morgan Carter (299 digs), Lauren McCutcheon (226) and Riley Whitesides (164).
It isn’t just digs; 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.
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.
CLAIRE EDWARDS JOINS 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 plays beach volleyball at the College of Charleston. She isn’t the only member of the team with South Carolina volleyball in her DNA – senior Gabby Brown is the sister of alumna Callie Brown (2015-18) and Kiune Fletcher is the cousin of Mikayla Shields (2016-19).
MENDOZA’S TRENDING TOPICS
In Head Coach Tom Mendoza’s tenure with the team…
- Home is where the heart is. The Gamecocks are 46-17 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 is the team’s best month, combining for a 29-10 mark. The highlight came in 2018 with a perfect 9-0 record in September, the first Gamecock squad since 1983 to do so.
- The Gamecocks are 63-11 when winning the first set but are 12-41 when losing it.
- In five-set matches, the team holds an 20-10 record. In the three years prior to his arrival, the Gamecocks were just 7-8 in five-setters.
- The offense has out-hit opponents 74 times and have lost just seven of those matches when recording a higher hitting percentage.
- Aces have been a key to victory; under Mendoza the Gamecocks are 55-13 when matching or surpassing opponents in aces.
- If the back line is locked in, the odds swing heavily in South Carolina’s favor; the team has a 40-6 record when finishing with more digs in a match since Mendoza arrived in 2018.
ALL TIME RECORDS
- South Carolina holds an 862-677 (.561) all-time record, dating back to 1974. 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 259-321 (.430) in the 31st season as a member. The 200th SEC win came on Nov. 8, 2019 at Mississippi St.
- The team has a 17-15 overall record in the opening game of SEC play.
- In matches in the Carolina Volleyball Center, opened in 1996, Carolina is 236-128 (.642) overall and 122-110 (.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 122-71 and a record of 75-55 at South Carolina. He has led his teams to the NCAA tournament in five of his six years as a head coach and is just the fourth coach in program history to reach 75 career wins.