South Carolina was off to their best start in program history at 13-0 and was just coming off of a tough 3-2 win over LSU before heading out on the road to take on Auburn and #21 Tennessee over the weekend. Carolina struggled to adjust to life on the road and playing in another team's gym, falling in both matches by 3-1 scores to drop to 13-2 and 2-2 in SEC play. The young Gamecock players struggled to deal with crowd noise and just getting used to playing away from the friendly confines of the South Carolina Volleyball Competition Facility.
"It's both," head coach Scott Swanson said in an exclusive interview with Gamecock Anthem. "The ball travels a little bit different in each arena. In smaller gyms the ball might not float as much, and there are always different backgrounds in your line of sight. A rowdy crowd can be distracting, and if you have young players that aren't used to that it can definitely get in their heads. We're hopefully counting on that in our own gym and we think that's a big advantage for us because our fans do a great job of making it loud and fun. When we're on the road we have to overcome that and when we're at home we have to take advantage of that."
Coach Swanson said entering the weekend that his team matched up well with Auburn and had a shot to steal one on the road, and early on it looked like Carolina could pull one out after winning a tough first set.
"In Auburn we came out and played pretty well in the first set," Swanson said. "We battled to win 27-25, then Auburn, playing on their home court with their home crowd, kind of stepped it up in game two and I don't think we responded real well to how they came out."
Carolina actually jumped out to a 4-0 lead in that second set before Auburn would take over, winning 11 of the next 12 points to take an 11-6 lead. They would not look back the rest of the set, winning 25-16 to even the match up and turn the momentum into Auburn's favor. After Carolina was able to get off to a 5-3 lead in the third set, Auburn again took control to cruise to a 25-18 win back Carolina into a corner.
As any good team would do, Carolina fought back in the fourth set. They would take a lead as late as 18-17 before Auburn reeled off four straight points and hold on for a 25-22 win to hand Carolina their first loss of the season.
"Game three and four we played well and was even ahead at times, but we just weren't on top of our game," Swanson said. "In spurts we played really well and in certain rotations we couldn't put the ball away or we weren't passing or digging well. Not our best showing. I think that was a match we could have won had it not been our first SEC road experience, and if we had that one back I think the results could be different."
Things would get much tougher two days later when the team traveled to Knoxville to take on 21st ranked Tennessee. The Gamecocks seemed to be intimidated by the Lady Vols and it showed early on. Tennessee would score 14 of the first 16 points in the first set and roll to a 25-16 win.
"At Tennessee we were just overpowered in the begging and kind of shell-shocked at how physical they were and how hard the ball was coming," Swanson said. "It was the first team that we've seen this year like that."
The second set would begin the same as the first with the Vols building an early nine point lead. Down 21-12 Carolina would begin to turn things around. The Vols would ultimately win the set 25-20, but scoring eight of the final twelve points in the match gave Carolina the confidence they needed to know they can play with Tennessee. Carolina would jump out to an early 10-4 lead, but the Vols would score six in a row to tie it. The teams would battle back and forth from there with Carolina winning 25-23 to avoid a sweep. Tennessee would win the fourth set 25-23 to win the match, but Swanson came away thinking that his team has a chance at knocking off the Vols when they come to Columbia late in the season.
"It took us a while to get going, but after game two we were a completely different team," Swanson said. "We started hitting smarter shots and made less mistakes and won game three. They were uncomfortable and started becoming more human and game four could have gone either way. We battled all the way to the end and lost 25-23, but we were really close in a couple of points to getting it to a game five and who knows what might have happened."
Last weekend showed Carolina that, while they can certainly compete with some of the best in the conference, they have to play well throughout the course of the match to win in the SEC.
"Overall, what we got out of the weekend was a wake-up call; ‘Hey, we're no longer undefeated and we can't have an off-night and expect to beat teams in the SEC,'" Swanson said. "That's what we're realizing. Even though we're playing hard and we have a good attitude and our chemistry is good, we have to execute and perform at a high level for a longer period of time to beat these teams."
Much like in football, basketball, and any other sport, road upsets are rare in the SEC. Though most crowds usually reach 1,000 depending on the team and opponent, most volleyball gyms are rather small and the noise is even louder than in some basketball venues. That is why it is important to hold serve at home and pull off a couple of upsets in your own gym.
"I think there will be some upsets, not only by us but other teams as well, and they're usually going to happen in your home gym," Swanson said. "Road upsets are pretty rare. You're either better than that team or they're on their home court and it's going to be a tough match. I think that we have what we have and to be good we have to be really on for a long period of time. We can't be the roller-coaster team that makes a few good plays here, then give up a bunch of points here, then tries and recover here. We've got to be more consistent."
The Gamecocks have had to wait all week to get back on the court, but that has provided time for Carolina to work on some things in preparation for two home matches this weekend. The team has added a little extra emphasis on defense and digging hard-hit balls throughout the week to get them ready for 12th-ranked Florida Friday night.
"They're probably the best team we'll play this year from what I've see," Swanson said. "They're good at every position, and even their younger players are experienced. They have an outside hitter (Živa Recek), a foreign kid that came right in and started dominating as a freshman. They typically don't rebuild, they reload and that's what happened. They're huge at the net, they're a really high jumping team, they have a lot of power, and they don't make a lot of mistakes. We're going to have to try and throw everything at them to try and make them feel uncomfortable in our gym. They're just really good."
Typically when playing a team that is better than you across the board, you have to play your best game and have some bounces go your way to have any chance of winning. That's what the Gamecocks face when Florida comes to town.
"We'll have to play absolutely great and they'll have to be off," Swanson said. "We'll have to make them play how they don't want to play.
"I'm not saying Florida is impossible to beat, but if they're on and we're on, they're going to beat us," Swanson continued. "If we're on and they're off we can beat them."
Fans are encouraged to attend the game and wear all white to match the team's uniforms.
After facing Florida the Gamecocks will host Ole Miss Sunday afternoon, a team they obviously will feel more confident in facing.
"Ole Miss is a team that we just match up better with," Swanson said. "I think we're a little bit closer with them (than Florida). They're still a big blocking team and physical team, but we have some players that can hang and win some match-ups. Florida is Florida and Ole Miss is Ole Miss. They're two completely different teams, and at the same time if we don't do well with what we do, they will both be hard to win. We have to play our best to win either match."
Volleyball returns home after tough weekend
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