A new school year is about to begin and that means a new year of excitement for Gamecock Athletics. After a tremendous 2015-2016 for South Carolina in which 13 Gamecock programs reached the NCAA Tournament in their respective sport and 14 programs were ranked in the national top 25, there is a lot to be excited about for 2016-2017.
“I am excited about what 2016-17 holds for Gamecock Athletics,” said Athletics Director Ray Tanner. “We have built tremendous momentum in our program. I appreciate our student-athletes, coaches and staff for their hard work, dedication and commitment. Representing the University of South Carolina is an honor that they do not take for granted. The tremendous support of our donors, alumni and fans is very much appreciated and we will need everyone behind our teams in 2016-17.”
For the stadium/arena sports of football, volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer, South Carolina is poised for success this fall. First year head coach Will Muschamp has reinvigorated the football program with a new intensity that permeates the student-athletes and his coaching staff. Despite coming off a 3-9 season last year, there is a lot to be excited about in 2016.
“Change often brings a new level of excitement, anticipation, and expectations” said South Carolina radio play-by-play broadcaster and former quarterback Todd Ellis. “When you have a coach like Will Muschamp who is young, as are members of his staff, I think that brings a new energy to the team and everything surrounding the football program. They have a clear plan and understanding that the lifeblood of college football is recruiting, and they have implemented that plan.”
“Their commitment to aggressive 24/7 recruiting is what impressed me the most so far,” added former quarterback Tommy Suggs, who begins his 43rd year as the analyst for the Gamecock Radio Network. “They’re discipline and work ethic, not only in recruiting, but also in coaching, is impressive. They’re a very intense and very cohesive bunch. They all seem to have the same sense of urgency and desire that Coach Muschamp has. I think we’re going to be fine. I think what the fans can expect is a team that will play hard and will be very well-coached.”
Gamecock coaches aren’t calling 2016 a rebuilding year, and the plan is to start winning now. The two former signal callers are believers that the team has the ability to get back to winning ways.
We have to earn our way back, but I think we will be much better with every game.Tommy Suggs, Gamecock Radio Analyst
“We have had a solid team at many positions, even last year,” Ellis said. “The difference from years past is that we didn’t have as many playmakers to take us over the top. When we won 11 games over three straight years, a lot of those games were tight. We won late in many ballgames with those five or so guys who made a play.
“I think this team will be in every ball game. We’re going to see some young players develop. We’re going to be competitive.”
“I think we will be a much better ball club as the season goes on,” Suggs said. “We have to earn our way back, but I think we will be much better with every game. You may see mistakes at first because we’ll be playing a lot of young players. Offensively, I think we need to be patient because there may or may not be a freshman playing some at quarterback, and we’ll have some young wide receivers.”
Who the starting quarterback will be is a favorite topic of conversation for fans, and Ellis likes the options the Gamecocks have on the roster.
“At quarterback, I think Perry Orth brings great stability there,” Ellis said. “I think Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley are guys who are going to be really fine football players. Whomever starts there probably depends on how well we run the ball. I do think this is a team that could make a dramatic jump if we find a playmaker or two.”
“I think Deebo Samuel can really play at wide receiver if he can stay healthy,” added Suggs. “The QB position is critical, and I don’t know if there is a better offensive coach available than (Co-Offensive Coordinator) Kurt Roper. So I’m excited to see what he can do here. You just have to give him a little time with the quarterbacks. Perry Orth is very capable, and then we’ll see how the freshmen, McIlwain and Bentley, do. It will be interesting to watch.”
On the soccer pitch, both of the Gamecock programs are coming off NCAA Tournament appearances last year, and are poised for another run at the postseason. Shelley Smith’s women’s soccer team features nine seniors, and the Gamecocks return seven of their nine top scorers from last year.
This group wants to win championships.Shelley Smith, Women's Soccer Head Coach
“We’re consistently one of the top teams in the country, and I think we’ve shown that,” Smith said. “We have very exciting players. We also play a difficult schedule, so you’re going to see some of the top teams and some of top players in the country.”
Some of those top players include South Carolina’s First Team All-SEC junior forward/midfielder Savannah McCaskill, who led the team with 10 goals and ranked second with 9 assists, and senior midfielder Chelsea Drennan who added one goal and team high 10 assists last year.
“I’m excited to have a large senior class to finish out their careers and see what they can do,” Smith said. “I’m really excited about this freshman class too. I’m looking forward to seeing the two gel, and I’m very excited about the future of the program. Chelsea was named captain unanimously by her teammates. She has really been a leader here, and under her leadership with the help of a big senior group, she’ll be a big part for us on and off the field.
“Savannah has obviously been a stellar player for us, and she has shown even more progress in getting ready for her junior year. Other people know her really well now and try to take her out of games, but I think she will respond and do well.”
The Gamecocks also look forward to the return of senior forward Sophie Groff who tallied 6 goals and 4 assists despite missing most of the second half of the season with a knee injury. South Carolina reached the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in the last nine seasons, and after falling in the first round following record run to the Elite 8 the year before, the Gamecocks are hungry for a deep run in 2016.
“This group wants to win championships,” Smith said. “They want to make the team go further than it ever has. They’ve grown and matured a lot, and sometimes you have to have those setbacks to grow.”
Stone Stadium lived up to its nickname as “the Graveyard” with the women’s team posting a 9-1 regular season record at home after ranking third nationally in home attendance, while the men’s soccer team ranked ninth nationally in home attendance and went undefeated on its home turf with an 8-0-2 mark, which included two wins against top ten teams, with a total of four victories against teams ranked among the top 13 nationally. After returning to the NCAA Tournament where the men’s team advanced to the second round, head coach Mark Berson can’t wait to take the pitch for his 39th year at South Carolina and has a lot of his own reasons to be excited.
We have a great nucleus of players from last year returning who went undefeated at home.Mark Berson, Men's Soccer Head Coach
“First of all, we have a great nucleus of players from last year returning who went undefeated at home,” Berson said. “That’s only the second time in our history that we’ve gone undefeated at home. Our fan support was one of the big reasons why we were able to power through that schedule at home. This year, we host the top two seeds from the NCAA Tournament from last year. So we’ll need everybody’s help. The home field advantage is undeniable.”
Brian Hand, executive editor of Spurs & Feathers and analyst for SEC Network+ soccer broadcasts, echoes Berson’s excitement for 2016.
“To me, the really strong returning nucleus coupled with an outstanding incoming class gives the 2016 South Carolina men's soccer team a chance to be special,” Hand said. “I expect this team to not only compete for the Conference USA regular-season and tournament title, but also much more in the NCAA Tournament.”
Talent and depth are critical for any team’s success, and the Gamecocks have both. Senior Danny Deakin returns after earning First Team All-Conference USA honors last year with a team high 11 goals. Veteran leadership will play a big factor in South Carolina’s season.
“Kurtis Turner is the main engine in the midfield,” Berson said. “Koty Millard has been a starter ever since he has been here, and Danny Deakin was one of the top players in the country as a goal scorer. Ive Burnett has played almost every minute of every game. In the goal, William Pyle and Marco Velez have both done exceptionally well, so I think we have a very good nucleus of guys to build around. I really like the group of newcomers we have coming in as well.”
“When you have four-year starters like Ive Burnett, Koty Millard and Kurtis Turner still in the fold, you know the leadership on the team is going to be top-notch,” Hand added. “The special thing about this year's Gamecocks is that you have so many players like those seniors that can play so many positions. That will allow Coach Berson and his coaching staff to do some different things, but more importantly give them options to put a team on the pitch that can not only score goals, but also be one of the best teams in the country defensively.”
With the success of last year’s team, Berson said the Gamecocks are hungry to use that as a launching pad to go further this season.
“Our expectations have never really changed,” Berson said. “We’ve been to the national championship game, and we’ve been to a couple of Final Fours and several Sweet 16s. That’s the expectation level of these guys.”
The Carolina Volleyball Center should be loud with good reason this fall as head coach Scott Swanson is thrilled to have a veteran team that should finally be healthy after numerous injuries challenged the team last year.
I’m banking on us upsetting some people along the way, and if we do that, we have a really good shot at getting to the NCAA Tournament.Scott Swanson, Volleyball Head Coach
“I’m excited about the experience we have coming back,” Swanson said. “We have five seniors that have really been leading the charge all spring and all summer to make this team better. We also have one of our most athletic and exciting incoming classes since I’ve been here the last five years. It’s a really good mixture of experience and athleticism that fans will love to watch on the court.
“I’m counting on seniors Jacqy Angermiller, Koko Atoa-Williams, Dessaa Legros, Joely Cabrera, and Megan Kirkland. All five of them should be somewhere in the starting lineup, anchoring this team to be better than we have been in the past.”
“No matter what sport you’re in, when you can fill up nearly half of your roster with seniors, that’s usually a good sign in terms of leadership and what it takes to have been through the battles in this league,” said SEC Network+ volleyball play-by-play broadcaster Derek Scott. “Having five seniors is a huge plus as they look to take the next stop and competing with the upper echelon.
“Any time you have someone with supreme athletic ability, it’s going to catch your eye in any sport. Dessaa Legros is freakishly athletic compared to most of the people she will be going against. She has pure leaping ability and the ability to terminate at the net and above to the net. That’s fun to watch, even if you don’t know the sport really well. When she elevates over the defenders and is killing the ball, that’s fun.”
Swanson was also quick to point out that fans will want to keep their eyes on some of the younger players as he expects them to make an impact as well.
“(Freshman) Mikayla Shields is a left handed, right side hitter who is an extremely athletic, high jumping and hard-hitting player,” Swanson said. “I expect her to help us right away on the right side of the court. Transfer Abreia Epps is extremely athletic and plays well on the right side as well, so we’re going to be playing both of them a lot.
“We have two really good setters in returning sophomore Aubrey Ezell, who made the SEC All-Freshman team last year, along with incoming freshman Courtney Koehler. We will likely be running a two-setter offense. So we have a lot of really good options with the new kids.”
“Coach Swanson has more quality depth this year where he may have to make some tough decisions for playing time,” Scott said. “That’s a good thing. That sort of competition in preseason will really help.” Averaging more than one thousand fans per home match, Scott is a believer in the home court advantage.
“It’s a good facility even though it is smaller than some others,” Scott said. “With the band and all of the students in there, it gets loud. You will see a lot of visiting teams lose their composure in there. The home court advantage is always fun when you are on the right side of it.”
Those close to the program are cautiously optimistic that the Gamecocks have a chance at a run to the NCAA Tournament.
“I do feel like this is the team that is most capable of doing that,” Swanson said. “If we are healthy, we will have the depth and the athleticism that we have not had in the past and give us the best chance at a postseason berth. We have a tough schedule, and we play the top four teams in the SEC twice this year. I’m banking on us upsetting some people along the way, and if we do that, we have a really good shot at getting to the NCAA Tournament.”
“When you look at the end of last season, that was a squad that really finished things off on a strong note last year,” Scott said. “In spite of a ton of injuries and having a lot of obstacles in their way, they finished really strong. You always feel like you can carry some of that into the next year when you have that kind of positive momentum.”