Gut check time for Carolina Volleyball

Two weeks ago, South Carolina was feeling pretty good about themselves. Two weeks later they are struggling to right the ship. Unfortunately the SEC does not give much of an opportunity to do that. Carolina will play five of its next six matches on the road, including the most difficult atmosphere in the conference.

To say that the last two weeks have been difficult for the South Carolina volleyball team is a vast understatement. After winning their first 13 matches, including their first two SEC games, Carolina hit the road to take on Auburn and Tennessee. The team battled hard in both matches, but came up short in both. Returning home this past weekend the Gamecocks hoped to get back on the winning track. Unfortunately that did not happen.

Carolina began by hosting #12 Florida Friday night, the perennial favorites in the SEC year in and year out. For the third match in a row, Carolina realized after a set that they could compete and gave the Gators everything they wanted.

"In the beginning it was a little bit rough and then we realized that if we can serve tough and get our heads in there and play some good defense then we have a shot against this team," head coach Scott Swanson said Thursday. "In game two we lost 25-23 and were very close. In game three we came out without Juliette Thévenin and beat them 25-21, so I think that we proved to ourselves that when we are focused and when things are clicking we can compete with the best teams. It's just a matter of experience and us doing it more frequently. We were proud of our effort and it was something that we felt we earned a little respect because we pushed the #12 team in the country."

For Carolina to compete with, and win a set against a team like Florida without their offensive leader shows what the team is capable of. Unfortunately they are still struggling with consistency and that was never more apparent than Sunday's match against Ole Miss. The Rebels swept Carolina for just their second conference win of the season. Carolina was not able to get anything going with any kind of consistency and it was a tough match for Swanson to watch on the sidelines.

"Sunday was the worst performance I have ever seen," Swanson bluntly said. "It was absolutely…I don't even know how to explain it. It was a total lack of focus. We had some players who weren't prepared physically or mentally to play. We just didn't get it done. It was ugly and I hope we learned from it so that when we do have another opportunity to get out on the court that we're ready because that was just an embarrassing match against a team that, had we played well in our own gym, could have beat them 3-0."

If there was a bright spot from the weekend, and the Ole Miss contest in particular, was the play of sophomore middle blocker Cara Howley. Howley led the team in scoring in each contest, scoring 16 points against Florida and following that up with nine points against the Rebels.

"Cara, in my opinion, is the most improved player since last fall," Swanson said. "She's playing a new position. She's all about the team all the time. She's all about making everybody better on the court all the time, and that's why she's good. She doesn't feel a lot of pressure because all she's trying to do is give her best and help everybody. As coaches that's exactly what we want."

When you hear Swanson talk about Howley, you quickly understand why she was named one of the captains of the team despite being a redshirt sophomore. Howley suffered a knee injury early in her freshman season in 2010 and received a medical redshirt. She started the 2011 season at middle blocker before moving to an outside hitting spot. This season she is back in the middle.

"Cara had knee surgery during her freshman year," Thévenin said. "She has become an incredible player. She has improved so much and is fully recovered now. I don't think a lot of middle blockers can lead the team in scoring. She's an awesome player."

It seems like this young team is now at a crossroads and the season could go either direction. Coming off four consecutive losses after winning the first 13 has damaged the confidence of the team, particularly the loss to Ole Miss Sunday. With five of the next six matches on the road, it will take a tough mindset to right the ship.

"I'm not sure if we're ready, I'm really not," Swanson said. "I'm not sure if we've bounced back like we wanted to from Sunday. Today in practice there was a few glimpses of it, but it definitely wasn't for a long enough period of time, so we're still kind of reeling from losing four matches after starting 13-0. They have to realize that the SEC is really tough and we're still rebuilding and we're a young team. We don't have the experience or physicality as the rest of the teams ahead of us has. It is what it is right now. We have to keep building confidence and keep playing as hard as we can if we're going to continue to build the right way. We're urging our players not to think as much about winning and losing but thinking about giving our best effort every time out."

It does not get easy for Carolina this weekend. They open the weekend in College Station against 12-2 Texas A&M, who is tied for first in the SEC West with Arkansas at 4-1. Friday's game will be A&M's "Dig Pink" night to raise money for breast cancer research and Swanson is expecting a hostile environment for his young team.

"I'm expecting probably the best home court advantage of anywhere we go. It's going to be a really tough match for us if we don't put that stuff aside and play really hard. It's a difficult match against an experienced, senior-laden team."

Unlike Carolina, who has just two seniors and four juniors, A&M has five seniors and five juniors. Friday's match begins at 9:30 EST and will be televised on SportsSouth, as well as ESPN3 on-line.

On Sunday Carolina travels to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. Like the Gamecocks, the Tigers are struggling with consistency this season. LSU is 6-10 on the season and 2-5 in the SEC following a loss to Georgia Wednesday night. LSU is also the last team Carolina beat, a 3-2 winner in Columbia three weeks ago. LSU will have three days to prepare for the Gamecocks and will certainly be looking for revenge.

"I think that they're struggling with their confidence a little bit," Swanson said. "They just lost to Georgia for the first time in like 15 years at home. They're a dangerous team because we have beaten them once and now we're on their home court and they're going to be looking for that revenge. I'm expecting our team to go in there and jump on them and get them thinking about their last several losses and get in their head. If we play well I feel like that's a match we should be able to steal on the road."

Unlike men's basketball, volleyball does not have the format of playing everybody in the East twice and the West once. This season they have done it more like women's basketball, who does not have divisional play. While there two separate divisions in volleyball the schedule has been done randomly this season with the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri. That leaves Carolina playing more of an SEC West schedule than SEC East. Arkansas is the only SEC West team Carolina only plays once, while Florida and Tennessee are the only two SEC East teams the Gamecocks play twice.

"It's been done randomly this year," Swanson said. "We actually play 13 matches outside of our division and seven matches inside our division. Because we have an uneven number of teams in the SEC, Vanderbilt doesn't have volleyball, we're playing 20 matches but we're not playing everybody (in the East) twice. They did a random draw as to who would play who this year because they just didn't figure it in time out this year. That's going to change for next year."

Regardless of who Carolina plays their focus is simply on just building a winning tradition. Much like when Steve Spurrier took over as the football coach in 2005, Swanson did not inherit much. Carolina had enjoyed some level of success in the past, but nothing solid and nothing consistent. It took Spurrier five years to build the talent level and depth to compete for an SEC Championship, and Swanson will be facing a similar challenge. Right now the focus is on building a solid foundation based on the talent level he has now, and using that as a springboard going forward to create a consistent winner at South Carolina like a Florida or Texas A&M.

"We're talking about programs that have been established as NCAA programs for 20 years," Swanson said. "We haven't gotten there since the early 2000's. We're rebuilding and it's going to take five years before we're going to be able to talk about consistently beating a Florida, and even then I don't know. It's like LSU or Alabama football. They just reload."

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