With the 2012 season winding down for the South Carolina volleyball team, the season can best be described as a wild roller coaster ride. As has been documented, Carolina got off to the best start in program history, winning their first 13 games and starting off SEC play with two victories over Georgia and LSU. That is when they hit a brick wall and lost their next seven matches and has lost 13 of their last 16 matches. The Gamecocks are 16-13 (4-13 SEC) and will be looking to win one of their final three matches to finish above .500 for the first time since 2008.
"It's obviously been all-time highs and some all-time lows with the 13 wins in a row and having such a great start and then we went on a pretty long losing streak in the SEC," head coach Scott Swanson said. "We had some good spikes where we got our four (SEC) wins and we're hoping that this Friday will be our fifth win and we can be over .500. Overall we've improved. Our hitting percentage is higher than it was last season and our RPI is higher than it was last season. There's a lot of really positive things about it."
As is the case in any program, goals were set prior to the season for this year's volleyball team. Though certainly you hope to go out and win every game you play in, that just is not realistic in a sport like volleyball. You set goals that are realistic to your program and for a rebuilding program like Carolina it is just to get better from last season.
"We talked about wanting to end the year with a winning record," Swanson said. "Whether that happens or not we did improve like we wanted to and hopefully we will have a higher RPI. Last year we ended up 113 and right now we're 99, but out of 322 Division I programs to be in the top third when you're rebuilding is something that we can shed positive light on. At one point we were 59th early on in the season. We've definitely done some good things and we're certainly not happy with our record in the SEC, but that's just part of how we're going to keep building."
There's very little doubt that the SEC is among the toughest volleyball conferences in the nation, much like every other sport. Included in the 13 wins to begin the season was the first win in the last three meetings with rival Clemson. Carolina dominated the match in a 3-0 win and is yet to lose a match to their rival in the Volleyball Competition Facility. Clemson is currently 18-10 on the year and 9-8 in the conference, good enough for a tie for fifth with Georgia Tech.
"Even though we have been losing a lot in conference it just shows how good the conference is," Swanson said. "We beat Clemson 3-0 at our place and that kind of tells you where they would stack up in the SEC and they're doing fairly decent in the ACC. I think it's all fairly relative to the strength of our conference. We're a young team and rebuilding team where we're trying to get everybody on the same page and change the program culture. It's not going to be an overnight turnaround. It's going to be over the course of several years where we're working to get better and better every year. Some freshmen that came in here got some good experience and they're going to be better next year. They're going to know what they have to work on this spring and summer to be better as sophomores."
Part of the progression of a program is the development of the younger athletes. Freshmen Darian Dozier has started 22 matches and Jenna Allen has played in 27 matches. Sarah Blomgreen has seen action as the season progressed and redshirt freshman Christina Vereb has emerged as one of the better all-around players on the team. Along with experience, Swanson has said many times that getting players into the weight program is extremely important. Players have to be bigger, faster, stronger, and be able to jump higher to transition from role players to leaders.
Not only do players have to develop mentally and physically they still have to continue to develop on the court. Part of any athlete's growing progress is getting rid of old habits. When you're bigger and more talented than your opposition, you can overcome small flaws in your game. When you begin facing opposition that is just as good as you are or better, those small flaws magnify.
"We have to make a lot of changes with how we do a lot of things technically," Swanson said. "A lot of things that are not allowing us to play at the speed that a lot of other SEC teams are playing are because of technical issues we need to fix this spring. It's about changing habits that we've created throughout high school and club volleyball that don't necessarily work at the SEC level. That will be out number one focus to make all of players technically sound."
As players continue to develop and Swanson continues to bring in top-notch talent things will begin to turn around in Columbia. It's only a matter of time.
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