Gamecocks Open SEC Play at No. 16 Arkansas
FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. – The conference season begins on the road for South Carolina volleyball, with the Gamecocks (6-3) traveling out west for a pair of weekend SEC matches. Friday night, the team faces 16th-ranked Arkansas (10-2) with a 7 p.m. ET first serve on the SEC Network. The weekend closes with a Sunday afternoon match at Missouri (8-4), scheduled for 4 p.m. ET on the SEC Network+.
SCOUTING THE RAZORBACKS
Arkansas sits at No. 16 in the latest national top-25 poll, carrying a 10-2 overall record into conference play. The Razorbacks were picked to finish fifth in the preseason SEC coaches poll, coming off a successful 2022 campaign that ended with a 21-9 record and the program’s first NCAA tournament win since 2005. Leading the team is the two-woman pin combination of senior Taylor Head and fifth year Jillian Gillen. They are both averaging around four kills per set so far this season and have combined to take over 60 percent of the team’s total attacks. Through the non-conference season, Arkansas ranked second in the SEC for team kills per set (13.70), digs per set (14.68) and service aces per set (2.20).
SCOUTING THE TIGERS
Missouri finished off the pre-SEC season with an 8-3 record, a strong start for first-year head coach Dawn Sullivan. The Tigers returned just five players (two starters) from the 2022 roster, welcoming in 11 new players – seven transfers and four true freshmen. The key returner from last fall is junior right side Jordan Iliff, who ranked third last season in kills and currently holds the team lead with an average of 3.28 kills per set. Just behind her is graduate transfer Dilara Gedikoglu, at 2.75 per set. On defense, the Tigers rank fifth in the SEC in digs per set, thanks in large part to the efforts of sophomore libero Maya Sands’ 4.51 per set.At the net, junior middle Morgan Isenberg ranks fifth in the SEC with a team-leading 1.28 blocks per set.
Over the last five matches…
- The team’s offense is hitting just .190, of the five individuals have 30 or more total kills, only one is hitting better than .235 – Campbell Paris (.260) – and two are under .200.
- After jumping in and out of the rotation early in the season, junior Claire Wilson has re-established herself in the offense and is averaging 6.36 assists per set.
- The team’s serving game has seen its ace rate drop, with only 24 aces over 19 sets, but the serve defense has remained strong with only 23 aces allowed.
- Morgan Carter has shined at libero in this stretch, averaging 4.79 digs per set with a .976 serve reception percentage.
- Oby Anadi has had a hand in more than half of the team’s total blocks in the last five matches (33 of 62), averaging 1.83 blocks per set.
FLETCHER BUILDING OFF FINAL MONTH OF 2022
Senior Kiune Fletcher could very well be the key to the Gamecock offense in 2023. The athletic right side attacker ended her junior season with numbers that blew her previous career totals out of the water. In the month of November, totaling eight matches, Fletcher ranked second on the team in kills (with 65) while still providing valuable blocking numbers on the right pin. The final run improved on her first half of SEC play where she hit .066 with 1.21 kills per set over ten games. Including her seven games played so far this fall, Fletcher is nearing the same stats over her last 17 matches that she had in the first 50 matches of her career…
First 50 games (138 sets)
128 kills, 41 digs, 58 blocks, 158 points
0.92 kills, 0.29 digs, 0.42 blocks and 1.14 points per set
Last 17 games (54 sets)
123 kills, 35 digs, 39 blocks, 146.5 points
2.27 kills, 0.65 digs, 0.72 blocks and 2.71 points per set
HIGHS AND LOWS AT THE NET
After ranking in the top-25 nationally for blocks last fall, South Carolina is still red-hot to start 2023, entering SEC play ranked eighth in the country with an average of 2.90 blocks per set with two players (Oby Anadi and Ellie Ruprich) ranked in the top-10 of the SEC. For as good as the Gamecock block has been, however, opponents have been close behind. Entering the week, South Carolina opponents are averaging 2.69 blocks per set when facing the Gamecocks, a number that would rank 24th nationally if it were one team. This follows a 2022 season where opponents finished with 2.74 blocks per set, the highest single-season average for an opponent since the rally-scoring era began in 2001, surpassing the 2010 season’s opponent block average of 2.45 per set.
RUPRICH COLLECTS SEC WEEKLY AWARD
Senior middle blocker Ellie Ruprich earned the nod as Defensive Player of the Week for the SEC on Sept. 4, the team’s first honor of the season and the fourth weekly award of Ruprich’s career (2x Freshman of the Week, 2x Defensive). Ruprich disrupted all week for South Carolina, finishing with 25 total blocks in wins over Clemson, Miami and Troy. Ruprich averaged 1.92 blocks per set, almost matching the combined total of the three opposing teams over the course of the week. In the week’s opening match, against rival Clemson, Ruprich finished with eight blocks, two service aces, four digs and four kills over four sets. In the team’s five-set win over Miami on Friday night, she had seven more blocks with seven kills, and in the weekend finale against Troy she had 10 blocks, her third career match in double-digits.
CAROLINA SERVES UP HISTORIC PERFORMANCE
The team dominated Clemson in the serve game on Aug. 30, finishing with a 13-1 advantage in service aces. The 13 aces are the most by a Carolina team since 2010, for a match of any length. It ranks as the second-most for a four set match in the modern scoring era (since 2001), behind the record of 14 against Clemson on Oct. 10, 2001. The +12 margin for service aces is the most since 2004. The last time the team had a double-digit advantage in the category was Sept. 26, 2010 against The Citadel (13-3). The last time the team had an advantage higher was against Auburn on Oct. 17, 2004 (+16).
VOLLEYBALL IS IN HER BLOOD
Freshman setter Sydney Floyd comes to South Carolina with an impressive family history in the sport of collegiate volleyball. Her mother, Amy Banachowski, played volleyball at UCLA in the early 1990s and her grandfather Andy Banachowski was a two-time all American as an athlete and then coached the Bruins women’s volleyball program from 1965 to 2010. During his tenure, UCLA won six national champinships as a coach, another as a player, and made both the UCLA, AVCA and National Volleyball halls of fame. He retired as the Division I leader for career wins, with 1,106.
DOUBLE TROUBLE IN THE MIDDLE
Last fall, South Carolina’s ranked 21st nationally in blocks per set (2.63), thanks in large part to its two starting middles, Ellie Ruprich and Oby Anadi. Ruprich was a known commodity coming into the season – she is just the third player since 1983 to lead the team in blocks in each of their first three seasons – pacing the team again in 2022 with a career-high 130 total blocks. Anadi exploded in her first full season in the lineup, recording 120 blocks. It’s just the fourth time since 1999 that the Gamecocks had two players hit triple digit blocks in a single season. The two headlined one of the strongest blocking seasons in the program’s modern history. Since the rally scoring era started in 2003, only the 2005 team’s average of 3.02 blocks per set is higher and only in one season (2014) has the team finished with as many games with 10 or more total blocks – both the 2014 and 2022 teams had 14.
The story continues early on in 2023, as South Carolina enters the weekend ranked eighth nationally in blocks per set (2.90) and second overall in the SEC. Anadi (1.53 blocks per set) ranks second in the SEC and 10th nationally and Ruprich (1.21 blocks per set) ranks seventh and 63rd, respectively.
YOUNGSTERS BRINGING VALUABLE DEPTH
The team brought in four true freshman for the 2023 season, each with a chance to see the court in an impactful way across four different positions:
- Sydney Floyd (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) earned early playing time at setter and currently averages 5.09 assists per set while playing in eight matches and is tied for the team lead in service aces (8) .
- In the middle, Gabrielle Gerry (Louisville, Ky.) brings an imposing 6-foot-4-inch frame to the roster and played for one of the strongest club teams in the country. She made her collegiate debut in the season opener against Towson and has seen the court in four matches.
- On the right pin is Campbell Paris (Barrington, Ill.), the team’s tallest pin hitter. She ranks third in kills (averaging 2.21 per set) and blocks (29).
- The final member of the freshman class is defensive specialist Elizabeth McElveen (Rock Hill, S.C.). As a back-row defender, she may see the most time as a serving specialist, where she made her collegiate debut in the season opener vs. Towson.
RUPRICH CHASING MORE MILESTONES
Senior middle blocker Ellie Ruprich matched her career high for blocks with five games left in the 2022 season and finished with 130 for the season, good for third in the program’s single-season record book. Ruprich also went over 300 total blocks for her career last November, making her the sixth woman in the rally scoring era (since 2003) to reach that milestone. Currently, the Beverly Hills, Michigan native is on the cusp of some rarely contested records. In the rally scoring record book, Ruprich is in range of the solo block record (currently with 81, needs 95) and is 34 total blocks away from reaching 400. Only seven women in the program’s 50 seasons have reached that milestone.
REPLACING A UNIQUE TALENT
Despite a solid core of returners, the team will still need to replace one of the most impactful players from the 2022 roster – Jenna Hampton. The graduate transfer made one heck of a first impression in her lone season at Carolina, culminating with the SEC coaches voting her Libero of the Year. Hampton’s 460 digs accounted for over 35 percent of the team’s dig total. Going as far back as formal season stats are available – 1984 – Hampton accounted for a higher percentage of the team’s total 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 season and only two had cracked 30 percent – Aubrey Ezell (34.17 percent, 2017) and Hannah Lawing (32.34, 2010).
THE CUPBOARD ISN’T BARE
Despite Hampton’s departure, the team has a familiar face back in the role to start 2023. Junior Morgan Carter was the team’s libero in 2021, she is the only true freshman to ever earn the role for Carolina and she finished with 3.22 digs per set and 18 service aces that year. Through five games, she is averaging 4.46 digs per set – fourth-best in the SEC – and has a .969 serve reception percentage with five aces allowed over 163 receptions.
South Carolina’s foundation is built on a wealth of experienced passers, bringing back a pair of six-rotation hitters who shouldered quite the load in serve receive last fall. Senior Riley Whitesides and junior Lauren McCutcheon combined for 1,141 total serve receptions last fall and were only aced 61 times. Looking back over the last 20 seasons, Whitesides is one of only two members of the program to finish a season with a reception percentage north of .960 with 700 or more total receptions, the other was Bethanie Thomas in 2012 (700 receptions, .967 reception percentage).
GAMECOCK NATION PACKS THE GYM
Few venues feature the atmosphere of the Carolina Volleyball Center, and Gamecock fans are out in full force again to start the 2023 season. A crowd of 3,293 fans weathered a tropical storm on Aug. 30 against Clemson, the total is the second-highest for a home game in program history, just behind the record of 3,458 (also against Clemson, 8/25/2018). That came after last weekend’s total of 5,340 fans for the two-game series against Towson. The team saw three of the top five most well-attended matches in program history happen in the span of six days and, overall, seven of the top eight crowds have come under Coach Tom Mendoza’s tenure. Currently, the Gamecocks rank 18th nationally for total attendance (11,407) and 20th for average attendance (2,281 per game).
In 2022, South Carolina ranked 52nd nationally in average attendance (1,134) and total attendance (15,878), despite having the smallest capacity gym of any team ranked ahead of it. Dating back to 2014, the Gamecock volleyball program is averaging at least 1,000 fans per game every season.
MENDOZA ADDS TO COACHING STAFF
Two new staff members will help guide the Gamecocks for the 2023 season. Brittany Farrell joined the staff in February, most recently serving as the head coach for the indoor and beach volleyball programs at Spartanburg Methodist College after playing for South Carolina from 2018-19. After starting her collegiate volleyball career at Minnesota, Farrell (née McLean) joined the Gamecocks and finished with 58 career games played at Carolina, totaling 484 kills, 122 digs and 65 total blocks with the team making the NCAA tournament in 2018 and 2019. After graduating cum laude with a bachelor of arts from South Carolina, Farrell earned her master’s in business administration from Stetson while playing for its beach volleyball program.
In March, Mendoza announced the hiring of Madelyn Cole as the program’s director of operations. Cole spent the 2022 season as an assistant coach for Oral Roberts. Prior to that, she served as an assistant coach at Butler University, assisting with recruiting operations and on-court development with setters. In her career as a student-athlete, Cole was a two-time Big East Champion and NCAA Tournament participant at Creighton University from 2018-19, where she was a two-year starter at setter. Cole was named to the All-Big East Team in both seasons and was an AVCA Honorable Mention All-American in 2019.
Her first coaching role following her playing career was in 2021, serving as a graduate assistant for Providence College. While at Providence, Cole was named a 2021 AVCA Diversity Award recipient.
STATUS QUO IN THE CLASSROOM
The program improved its streak to 14 seasons in a row earning the AVCA’s Team Academic Award, announced on July 13. The Gamecocks have put 10 or more individuals on the SEC’s Fall Academic Honor Roll for seven seasons in a row and placed 21 total members on either the Fall or First-Year Academic Honor Rolls in the 2022-23 school year. This comes despite an ambitious list of majors that spans the world-renowned business school, sports science fields and engineering and education.
MENDOZA’S TRENDING TOPICS
In Head Coach Tom Mendoza’s tenure with the team…
- Home is where the heart is. The Gamecocks are 53-20 (.714) at the Carolina VB Center in Mendoza’s five-plus seasons. The team had lost five or more home matches for nine consecutive seasons before 2018 but have done that just once since then.
- September is the team’s best month, combining for a 33-13 mark. The highlight came in 2018 with a perfect 9-0 record in September, the first Gamecock squad since 1983 to do so.
- The team is 68-12 when winning the first set, 17-51 when losing it.
- In five-set matches, the team holds an 24-10 record. In the three years prior to his arrival, the Gamecocks were just 7-8 in five-setters.
- The offense finished with a higher hitting percentage than its opponents 83 times and have lost just seven of those matches.
- Aces have been a key to victory; under Mendoza the Gamecocks are 56-12 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 43-7 record when finishing with more digs in a match since Mendoza arrived in 2018.
The team’s win over No. 12 Florida on Sept. 25, 2022 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 under head coach Tom Mendoza; prior to his arrival in 2018, the program had just nine ranked wins in the 26 years since joining the SEC, going 9-110 (.076) between 1991-2017.
WE’RE GOING THE DISTANCE
South Carolina had eight five-set matches in 2022, the single-season high under head coach Tom Mendoza and tied for the second most in a single season in the rally-scoring era (since 2001). The only seasons with more five-setters are 2014 (9), 2006 (9) and 2008 (8). Of the team’s eight matches to go five last season, six came against SEC rivals. The only season in the rally-scoring era with more in conference play was 2014, when seven of the nine five-setters came against SEC teams. Under Mendoza, South Carolina is 24-10 in five-set matches, compared to 42-43 (.494) in the 17 seasons prior.
ALL TIME RECORDS
- South Carolina holds an 872-687 (.559) 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 229-310 (.424) 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 243-131 (.647) overall and 124-112 (.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 seventh season overall as a head coach, with a career record of 132-83 and a record of 85-65 at South Carolina. He has led his teams to the NCAA tournament in five of his seven years as a head coach and is just the fourth coach in program history to reach 75 career wins.