Gamecocks turning the corner?

Things may finally be looking up for the South Carolina volleyball team. Despite losing its last six matches, South Carolina coach Scott Swanson believes his young squad may have finally turned the corner. They will attempt to end the losing streak Friday night when they host Alabama in its "Dig Pink" match to promote Breast Cancer Awareness month.

No matter the sport, a team is going to struggle at some point. It may cost a team wins or it may cost a team to struggle against a team they would not normally struggle with. For the last month, the South Carolina volleyball team has been in a major slump. With just two seniors and four juniors, Carolina is a very young team. They are just simply a team that has lost the confidence they had a month ago when they won their 13th consecutive match to begin the season.

"That's what happens when teams go into a slump," head coach Scott Swanson said Thursday. "That's why they call it a slump and that's why sometimes it takes a while to get out of them."

It has taken a long time for Carolina to break their slump, a losing streak that now stands at six games after dropping a pair of road matches last weekend against Texas A&M and LSU. Against the Aggies it was a case of a team that just did not match up well in an environment that Bethanie Thomas and Christina Vereb both felt was intimidating for such a young squad.

"I knew that would be a factor," Swanson said of the crowd. "I just think the biggest thing was that they were so good that day and so much more experienced. That was a bigger factor than the fans. They usually have even bigger crowds, but they had a soccer match at 7:00. The atmosphere could have been a lot more hostile, but we just didn't match up well physically or experience wise."

As with any slump it will eventually come to an end. Carolina will win a match and the weight of the world will be lifted off their shoulders. There's always somewhere you can point to as the turning point where things begin to look up. Sunday afternoon's match-up with LSU, the last team the Gamecocks beat, may have been that turning point. In the first set Carolina had three set point opportunities, but couldn't quite close the deal. In the second set they built an early 16-8 lead, but the Tigers were able to mount a comeback and win the set and go on and win the match.

"I thought that was a winnable match for us," Swanson said. "Had we got some breaks in that first set and won 29-27 that would have made a big difference in how we played the rest of the match. We were definitely playing a lot better at LSU than we were at Texas A&M and we were starting to get that mentality back that we lost for a while. We're building off of that. We had a great practice today and I think it's all about where our heads are at. There's nothing wrong with us physically. We can do what we do well if our mentality is the right way."

There was a feeling in the air inside the Volleyball Competition Facility after Thursday's practice that had not been there in recent weeks. There was a more positivity in the air heading into Friday's match against Alabama.

"The mood kind of went into a little lull for a little while, but we had a good team bonding exercise this morning and practice today was great so hopefully we can make a turnaround starting tomorrow with Alabama," Vereb said.

"We've been in a slump, but we're trying to get out of it and staying positive. We're doing different motivating drills and things to get us on another path," Thomas added.

Swanson agreed with his two second-year players.

"That's what I'm feeling," Swanson said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing tomorrow night, it's all about our mentality. If we let the pressure of a match change our mentality then there's always that risk of going back. I want to keep reminding them that we have to be willing to take the risk and go out and be very courageous about what we're doing and give it our best shot every time. I think we'll like our results a lot more if we go out and do that.

"I'm confident that we're going to play better and that's all we can ask for," Swanson continued. "What we're asking them to do is play their best, even if we're playing in practice. I felt like we practiced today and had two really good sets scrimmaging where everyone was going after it and having fun and playing with passions. We had to remind them again that this is supposed to be fun."

It's hard to have fun at times in the middle of a long season, especially when you know you're not playing your best. Your body aches from the daily grind of practice or games, and you're just drained both physically and mentally. Road trips get longer and you begin to just wish you could just stay home and sleep for days at a time.

"It becomes a grind," Swanson said. "School becomes stressful. We have some really good students on our team and they put a lot of time and effort into studying, and they worry about getting less than an A or B. They're very serious about getting good grades. That, coupled with travel and the weather change, it's just a typical October. It's that "October letdown" and I think almost every program goes through it. The season gets long and it gets stressful and they always need that little something special to get them back up to play and compete and believe like they did two months ago when everyone was fresh and their legs and arms felt good. You have to mentally push through that stuff and I think we're coming out on the other side of it now."

Volleyball is a sport that is often under-appreciated for the toll the sport takes on a body. The constant diving for balls on a hard surface, jumping for kills, blocks and serves, and the force behind the arm to kill a ball really combines sports like basketball and baseball into one.

"Because of how many times they hit the floor diving for balls, they have bumps and bruises and contusions," Swanson said. "The force of jumping up and landing while blocking and hitting. It's one of the roughest sports on your joints. Hitting the ball over your head, what they do every day, a pitcher would never do. A pitcher would never take that many reps, but our hitters have to. It's a little tough, especially on a younger female body who is coming in and they still haven't gone through our weight program fully to get that strength. It becomes even harder on those kids that don't have the physicality yet to be able to handle a long season.

Tomorrow night the Gamecocks face an Alabama team that is struggling themselves. Like the Gamecocks, the Crimson Tide got off to a great start with an 11-1 pre-conference record. After opening up conference play with a win over LSU, Bama has dropped five of its last six matches.

"We're hoping that tomorrow night we come out with that freedom to have fun and not play with any pressure, play for each other and get after it," Swanson said. "We've had a lot of good talks and I think our team is in a really good place and ready to start making some changes."

As the team begins to head down that final stretch of the season, hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth has all but been dashed so Carolina can just focus on each other. Swanson wants his team to go back to the team that won two of its final three games last season and the first 13 games of this season.

"I look for them to be mentally sharp and play with passion," Swanson said. "I want them to play hard for each other and continue to get more relentless on defense. We're getting closer to becoming that too. Last year we were a much different defensive team than we have been, so I think we hung our hat on the fact that we were going to dig some balls and get in long rallies and give ourselves a chance to score or force an error. After today's practice I'm confident that we're going to start to play like that and hopefully continue to play like that the rest of the season."

Note

- October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and South Carolina will have its "Dig Pink" match against Alabama Friday night at the Volleyball Competition Facility in front of the Carolina Coliseum. Fans will be given free pink pom-poms for the match.


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