Gamecocks split state of Mississippi

South Carolina's volleyball team won its first road game in conference play Friday with a 3-0 pounding of Mississippi State. Ole Miss returned the favor Sunday with a 3-0 win over the Gamecocks. This week Carolina returns home for a pair of match-ups with Auburn and Texas A&M.

The South Carolina volleyball went on the road this past weekend hoping to do something they were not able to do last season; win two games on the road. They took a trip to the Magnolia state to take on Mississippi State and Ole Miss over the weekend, two teams they felt like they could beat.

They took on a struggling Mississippi State team Friday night that was still searching for its first conference win of the year. By the end of the night they were still looking for their first win as the Gamecocks played one of their best matches of the year in a dominating 3-0 win over the Bulldogs. None of the three games were ever in doubt as Carolina cruised 25-9, 25-15, and 25-9.

"Against Mississippi State we played extremely efficiently," head coach Scott Swanson said. "We didn't make very many errors and it was very impressive how we were able to keep the ball on the court and hit at a high percentage. In some ways they couldn't really fight back to put pressure on us so we got confidence and momentum and kind of blew them out of the water."

They made the trip over to Oxford Sunday to take on the Rebels, a team that beat Carolina 3-0 in Columbia in a game that players and coaches alike felt like was a poorly played game. Ole Miss had a new-found confidence following a 3-1 win over Missouri two nights before and Carolina's inconsistency showed again as the Gamecocks were unable to duplicate their performance last year in their only road win. Led by strong performances by freshman Nakeyta Clair and redshirt freshman Ty Laporte the Rebels were able to jump on Carolina in the first two sets and quell a rally in the third game to secure the match.

"They are a very confident team right now," Swanson said. "They're playing excellent defense and are blocking very well. They have two freshmen middles that are superb athletes that are sort of tearing it up in the league. They're just more experienced and were better than us. I didn't feel like we really were mentally ready to play that match for whatever reason. We had talked about it as a staff and with the team that it was one of our remaining matches that were very much a realistic win for us. Everyone agreed on that and was confident that if we played well we could win, and we went out there and didn't play well. Part of that is credited to the other team. They were able to do to us what we did to Mississippi State two days before."

The lack of consistency from many young teams can be attributed to confidence, and that is the issue for Carolina. Regardless of the sport most college athletes are just downright dominant in high school. They are taller, stronger, faster, and just more advanced physically than their classmates and opponents. When those athletes get to college they find out rather quickly that everyone is just as good as they are, if not better. At the high school level they are able to overcome mistakes because they are so much better than everyone else. In college, those issues are exposed in a big way.

"It's just a confidence issue because we're not being consistent with how we're technically trying to play the game," Swanson said. "We're trying to change habits that are from when they were 12 years old and just started playing volleyball that are being exposed. You get used to doing something a certain way and then you get to this level, the hitters are hitting it higher and harder and everything is coming at you faster. The things you used to get away with at the club and high school level you don't get away with at this level. It's about buying into being really low in good defensive posture and not being early on your hitting approach so that you can see the ball and hit it in the court. It's a super-technical sport and we're still trying to figure those things out towards the end of the season."

Carolina returns home for a pair of contests against SEC West opponents when Auburn and Texas A&M visit Columbia. Auburn comes in Friday night, a 3-1 winner in last month's meeting on the Plains. The Gamecocks took the first game in the match-up but dropped the other three sets, including a battle in the fourth set. The Tigers have lost their last four matches and six of the last seven, but Swanson sees a team that is improved from the first match-up and his team will have to play a great match to come away with a win.

"They've improved and we've been kind of struggling so it's going to take a fast mentality change for us to be able to beat Auburn, no matter what court we play them on," Swanson said. "We think that if we play great and put some pressure on them and make them feel uncomfortable in our gym, then absolutely we should win the match. Right now we haven't proven in the past six weeks that we're doing that."

The Aggies come to town Sunday and is a team that is backed into a corner. After getting off to a 7-1 start in conference play, the Aggies have dropped three in a row and find themselves in a tie for first in the West with Arkansas. The Aggies travel to Baton Rouge Friday before traveling to Columbia. It is possible that the Aggies could be on a four-match losing streak when they get to town.

"I always feel better about being in our own gym," Swanson said. "Anything can happen on any given night to any given team. But we're not playing well enough to beat them right now. If that happens and we don't play well enough then it's going to be a Texas A&M win. If we play well and put pressure on them and start building some momentum then we have an opportunity. It all depends on how we mentally prepare and come and present ourselves as a unit."

If South Carolina can play with the consistency and confidence they played with in their three conference wins they have a shot at winning either match. If they don't then they could be in trouble heading into another difficult road stretch at Missouri and Kentucky next week.

"It's a lot about momentum and keeping your confidence at a level where you can play and compete with some of the teams we have to play," Swanson said. "Right now that just hasn't been consistent for us. We have to try and get better and hopefully we will get better on our home court."

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