It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off their shoulders.
"We definitely feel like we broke a curse and got the monkey off our back," senior setter Taylor Bruns said. "I think it's given us a new sense of confidence and it's kind of like we're starting the season over."
Whether you want to call it a curse or say that it was a two ton monkey on their back, the South Carolina volleyball team finally ended its nearly month-long losing streak when they defeated Coastal Carolina in Myrtle Beach Tuesday night.
"I feel like it was a step in the right direction," head coach Scott Swanson said. "We played a team we knew we could beat. We still had some moments in the first game where some of that doubt started to creep in when they played well, but we did a good job of squelching that and played efficient volleyball after that."
Carolina squeaked its way to a 25-22 win in the first game, before cruising to 25-16 and 25-13 wins to win the match.
Coastal wasn't the first team on the losing streak that Carolina felt like they had a chance of beating. Though the first match was on the road, Carolina felt like they had an opportunity of beating an Auburn team that had gotten off to a similar start as the Gamecocks against similar competition. They knew they were better than Ole Miss and felt like they were better than Alabama at home, but dropped both of those matches. Carolina proved they were better than LSU with a 3-2 win in Columbia that ended up being their final win before the losing streak, but were swept in Baton Rouge. Perhaps the main culprit of the seven match losing streak was confidence, something they began to get back after Tuesday night's win.
"It was definitely a confidence booster," defensive specialist Paige Wheeler said. "We needed it and it was just a little flip of the switch to gain momentum."
South Carolina, now 14-7 overall and 2-7 in league play, will take that new-found momentum on the road for a pair of showdowns with the two Mississippi schools. They will be the most hated and loved team in the state when they take on Mississippi State Friday night and Ole Miss Sunday. They will be public enemy number one for the Bulldogs Friday night while the Rebels will be their number one fans against their bitter rival, and vice versa on Sunday.
It was a quick turnaround for Carolina after Tuesday's match, providing them with just one day to prepare for the Bulldogs, but still have that confidence fresh on their minds.
"I thought today's practice was pretty good," Swanson said. "There was a couple of times where I felt we were hesitant, but overall I felt like we were getting back to the form that we're going to need to win the matches we can win and be competitive in the rest of them."
This weekend could provide Carolina with the best chance of sweeping a weekend for the remainder of the season. If there is a team that can sympathize with Carolina's losing streak, it is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have lost their last ten games, including all nine SEC matches, and have been swept in their last five matches.
"They've had some line-up changes so we're going to try and capitalize on that and take advantage on the fact that they might be in a little turmoil," Wheeler said. "We're just going to come out strong and attack and not wait on them to do anything."
If confidence was an issue for the Gamecocks in their losing streak, it certainly has to be a factor for Mississippi State. Carolina will be looking to jump on them early and take them out of it early on in the match.
"That's exactly what we have to do," Swanson said. "They're a dangerous team right now because they haven't won. They've had some team turmoil and they're going to be super hungry, so we're going to have to go in and execute at a high level. We can never take anyone for granted. We have to go in there and play good volleyball to knock them off. If we have the confidence to play like the better team that we are, then we will and that's key."
When Carolina takes on the Rebels Sunday they will be looking to rebound from one of their worst performances in recent years. Bruns said it was the worst team performance she has been a part of in her Gamecock career. If you want to call the slide a curse it could easily be called the "Rebel Curse." It was in that match that the confidence of the Carolina team was shattered. Sunday's match will be all about revenge. Even though Carolina had lost its previous three matches it was to teams that are a combined 19-8 in SEC play and the only match at home was against a Florida team that is 9-0 in the conference and ranked eleventh in the country.
"That was the nightmare moment that got us in the dumps," Swanson said. "Because we had been battling, even though we weren't winning, we were fighting and playing hard and giving ourselves a chance. From the beginning of that match all the way through I thought that started our slide. Whatever it was we have had to work hard to get rid of that stuff and get back on track. Hopefully we're closer to the positive side than the negative. I don't know if we're all the way back yet. We need an SEC win to see if we're back."
While certainly Carolina doesn't blame the losing streak on the Rebels because they have had multiple opportunities to end the streak, they will be looking for revenge.
"I hope that's the way we're thinking because we basically didn't show up for the Mississippi match here at home," Swanson said. "It was really hard to be a part of that match. I think that they will be looking to prove that we are better than Mississippi and we can be better than Mississippi if we play to our potential. We have to be able to pass and serve, play good defense, and we have to find somebody to block their right side and middle attack. It's one of those things where the key for us is to make them play poorly. It's all about our side of the net. If we can control our side of the net I have a good feeling about the weekend and that's what we're shooting for."
With just eleven matches left in the season, Carolina would almost certainly have to win out to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament and that just isn't reasonable in the SEC. Their goals now must be just to continue to build for next season and gain that confidence to finish the season better than last season's 14-16 record and surpass its five conference wins.
"We want to have a winning record and at this point we have nothing to lose," Wheeler said. "There's not that much pressure on us so we're just going to go out and fight and try our best."
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