By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
COLUMBIA, S.C. – It might not be the easiest thing to describe, but there is a special energy surrounding the South Carolina volleyball program this season. And that vitality has produced results in the win column. The Gamecocks are 13-0 heading into Friday’s showdown with Auburn, as South Carolina is one of seven teams still undefeated in NCAA Division I volleyball.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t put your finger on,” said senior captain Taylor Bruns. “It’s nothing tangible, but there’s something about the way we’re coming out, the look in our eye and our desire to win these matches. Every game, you can feel everyone on the court, on the bench and the coaches have this confidence and are playing with this sense of urgency. It’s been amazing to be a part of.”
South Carolina is in its second year under the direction of head coach Scott Swanson, a former head coach at UTEP, who served stints as a highly successful assistant at both Arizona State and Minnesota. He helped his squad double its win total last season from the previous year and has instilled a championship culture within the Gamecock program.
Swanson wants to make sure his players appreciate the journey as much as the end result, and has enjoyed watching his team achieve several notable firsts, including a school-record 13-match season-opening win streak.
“I think it’s really cool for the players to know that they’re part of something special,” Swanson said. “Obviously, as a coaching staff, we try to keep it toned down. We know that there are going to be rough patches with this young team, like heading into the road trip this weekend and the list goes on and on. We’ve had our challenges, but I think it’s something that they’ve earned and something they can all be really proud of. We’re very realistic as to where we are at in the building phase of our program.”
Bruns, the team’s starting setter, has been along for the highs and lows of the South Carolina program and, as a senior leader, is determined to help lay a solid foundation in her final season with the Gamecocks.
“There’s only one other senior, Christina Glover, and we both just want to make this the best year possible,” Bruns said. “We want to leave not only knowing we accomplished a great season, but that we helped set the stage for the rise of the Gamecock program.”
For Swanson, the sense of urgency his seniors feel is very apparent in their play.
“I think that’s definitely the case,” Swanson said. “Taylor Bruns is our captain and our starting setter. It doesn’t take long after watching her play to realize she is a special type of player; an emotional player who will run through a wall for her teammates. Christina Glover is our other senior and she has played a lot of different roles. Her goal was to be a contributor this year and she plays really good defense for us. They have both bought in. It’s fun to see because they may not have had the best experience here their first couple of years, but they are happy to be here and it’s paying off in wins and success.”
Defense is one of the staples of Swanson’s scheme. Last season, his team led the Southeastern Conference with an average of 16.78 digs per set, the best mark in four years for the Gamecocks. This year, South Carolina has the second-largest difference between its hitting percentage and that of its foes (+.134; .311-.177) in the SEC.
“Our signature is working on serving, passing and defense,” said redshirt freshman Christina Vereb. “We’re not the biggest team on the front row, so we just have to focus more on passing, that way we can run the offense. We need to keep our heads up whenever we walk into the gym and see 6-foot-4 girls on the other team and keep thinking, as long as we keep playing defense and serving, doing the things we’re good at and playing our game, then those big girls won’t be in the picture. We’ll be getting them out of system and running our defense efficiently.”
Bruns echoed Vereb’s sentiments, saying that the Gamecocks are using their defense and serving to their advantage.
“We aren’t the most physical team, we aren’t the biggest team and we aren’t going to block most balls but, if we pass the perfect ball and have three options, we are going to be hard to block no matter what team is on the other side,” Bruns said. “I think this year, we have just come out with the mentality that we have nothing to lose and we’re going to leave it all on the floor every game.”
From Swanson’s perspective, he couldn’t ask any more of his team.
This season, as far as the coaching staff is concerned, there are no stated goals. There is only the daily pursuit of improvement and realization of potential that is the only objective.
“This year was unique in that we really only talked about our main goal being to step out on the court, give our best effort and battle to our fullest potential,” Swanson said. “Our players really, really want to be an NCAA Tournament team. I’ve told them that it will take a really special season and will take us beating some teams that no one expects us to beat in order to allow us to get an at-large bid.”
The Gamecocks, who have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances in their program’s history, are seeking their first NCAA berth since 2002. While it may not be a spoken goal among the coaches, the players are quite vocal about their postseason aspirations.
“Since I came to college, it has been my dream to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Bruns said. “It’s my senior year and there’s a sense of urgency, but it’s not just the seniors. We’re finalizing that it’s a tangible goal. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. The SEC is extremely tough and we know that we’ve traditionally been at the bottom of the SEC, but with hard work, we can get to the tournament.”
The enthusiasm and success that are surrounding the South Carolina program extend well beyond the team’s players and coaches this season.
“It’s extremely exciting and everyone is really pumped up,” Vereb said. “The crowds are getting larger and that gets us more pumped up that people are starting to notice us and are more interested in South Carolina volleyball.”
South Carolina’s mentality has been the primary key behind its accomplishments this season and, if the Gamecocks continue what they have done to this point, Swanson sees no reason that his team can’t achieve the goals it has set for itself.
“Our mantra all year has been to fight and battle for every point,” Swanson said. “Not a single one of our 13 wins so far have seemed easy. Although we maybe haven’t played the toughest competition, we’ve had to endure things and fight through matches, and hopefully that has us mentally prepared. We’ve got to bring that mentality that we’ve had. We’ve spent a lot of time visualizing what we look like this year and how we react to adversity. There is a big focus on the mental part as well as the physical part. We need to continue to have the right mentality of not backing down and knowing how to respond when pushed.”