Nov. 6, 2008
COLUMBIA, S.C. -
A three-match homestand wraps up on Friday night, as the Carolina Gamecocks welcome Auburn to the Volleyball Competition Facility. First serve for this Southeastern Conference tilt is set for 7 p.m.
The Tigers come to Columbia fresh off their first weekend split in SEC play, sweeping Mississippi State at home last Friday night. Auburn holds a 6-19 overall record and a 1-13 mark in conference action.
Gamecocks Persevere Through Injuries
The Gamecocks have been dealing with injuries to key members of the squad this season, with all but two offensive members of the starting rotation missing a start in 2008. Sophomore Megan Laughlin missed three SEC matches due to a leg injury, while classmate Annie Thomas has sat out the last nine matches after a lower leg injury. Even redshirt senior Belita Salters and junior Meredith Moorhead have looked on from the sidelines for one match each suffering from different maladies. Despite the injuries, South Carolina has an 18-6 record and has assured itself of its best record since 2002, the last time the program made the NCAA Tournament.
Stepping Up in the Absence
While Thomas has been out for the better part of a month, South Carolina has seen its other outside hitters step up in her absence. Sophomore Hannah Lawing, who played on the back row during the first part of the year, filled the void in the third hitter spot. She improved her kills-per-set average from 0.27 to 2.15 while hitting a tick better than Thomas (.169 to .166) in the nine matches up front. Junior Meredith Moorhead has improved as well, hitting .100 points better and making almost a half a kill more per frame. Overall, the Gamecocks' record with Thomas was 13-2, while it's 5-4 since her injury.
Belita Salters Continues Record Book Assault
Redshirt senior Belita Salters has done a lot during her time in Columbia, and the record books show that. She already stands in the top 10 all-time in hitting percentage, solo blocks, block assists, total blocks and blocks per set. In the PDF version of the notes is a chart of all the career lists she could move up on this season, including the numbers of the people ahead of her. Last season, Salters recorded 33 solo blocks and 128 total, averaging 1.21 blocks a game, which stood 10th in the Southeastern Conference in 2007.
The middle blockers for South Carolina have turned in some stellar performances over the past two seasons, with redshirt senior Belita Salters writing her name in the single-match record books twice already in 2008. She hit a career-best .543 (21-2-35) in the five-set victory over UNLV, the third-highest average for a Gamecock in a five-set match. She followed that with a .536 (17-2-28) mark in the victory at Rhode Island in the Art Carmichael Classic, which stands fourth on the five-set match charts. Salters just missed making the three-set hitting percentage charts, falling one attempt shy of her .857 clip qualifying for the list (which would have stood second).
After watching Salters put her name in the record book twice, sophomore middle blocker Megan Laughlin decided to get in on the action. Her .652 (15-0-23) against the College of Charleston ranked as the fifth-best output in a three-set match in history, replacing Lori Rowe's .636 versus Southern Miss on Oct. 15, 1983. But that mark got bumped off the list when Laughlin hit .733 (11-0-15) in the sweep of South Carolina State. Now Laughlin is tied for second on that chart with Rowe's Nov. 12, 1983 performance against East Carolina.
That was not the only mark made on Oct. 23 against South Carolina State. In the first meeting between the volleyball teams of the two schools, the Gamecocks set a new program record with a .587 hitting percentage, topping the .561 mark set against Liberty on Sept. 1, 2000.
Is It That Simple?
The Gamecocks enter the weekend with a 18-6 record, and the match-by-match stats tell us one thing about the losses. If South Carolina out-hits its opponent, it wins. The Garnet and Black are 18-0 when it out-hits its opposition. In the team's six losses, they were out-hit when they compiled percentages of .085 (Arizona State), .168 (Mississippi), .200 (Kentucky), .186 (Florida), .180 (Georgia) and .197 (LSU). Their worst performance in a win was at Arkansas, when the squad hit .182. The Gamecocks are also 16-0 when they have less hitting errors and 16-1 when they have more assists and more kills than the other side.
Individual Notables in Win/Loss Comparison
Some Gamecocks have been better about keeping an even keel through wins and losses. The most notable is Belita Salters. While her hitting percentage is down .190 points (.466-.276) from wins to losses, her kills per set are nearly the same, from 3.25 in triumphs to 3.04 in defeats. Libero Sarah Cline currently has performed better, however statistically slight, in losses than wins, making 4.04 digs per set in defeats compared to 3.96 in victories. The other person to perform better in wins than losses has been Meredith Moorhead, who has a 2.00 kills-per-frame mark in losses while making just 1.56 kills per game in wins. Moorhead also hits 57 points better in losses than wins.
Digs and Serve Reception Key to Gamecocks' Start
When South Carolina's season ended last November, the coaching staff immediately made a goal to improve the team's defense, particularly digs and serve receptions. It seems that hard work has paid off. The Gamecocks currently lead the SEC and stand 66th nationally with 15.47 digs per set. That's just 1.8 digs off the squad's pace from last season when each game contained five more points.
Something that might be missed, however, is the fact the team's serve reception has also improved. Last year, South Carolina made 1.3 errors per set and successfully received a serve 94.5 percent of the time. The 2008 percentage stands just under that mark at 94.2 percent, as the squad now gives up 1.0 aces per set. In fact, the squad's opponents have just 89 aces on the season while making 158 service errors in the process. The Gamecocks' serving game has cut down on the errors, making 28 more errors than their 106 aces this season.
Belita Salters, Always a Bridesmaid?
Redshirt senior Belita Salters has been playing at an extremely high level in 2008, ranking 12th in the country in hitting percentage and 196th in kills per set. Some of her weekend totals have been outstanding, but each time she's gone up for the SEC Offensive Player of the Week, she has not won. She earned MVP honors at the Art Carmichael Classic with her .463 hitting percentage on the weekend, but Georgia's Maria Taylor averaged a double-double, had the only 30-kill match by an SEC player this season and helped her team to three wins at the Duke Invitational to take home the honors. Salters then led the team in kills at both Mississippi and Arkansas, hitting .418 in the process, but Florida's Kelly Murphy grabbed both the offensive and freshman awards after her triple-double against the Razorbacks and 4.00 kills per set. Finally, Salters hit .591 last weekend, including a .857 performance against Arkansas, while leading the team in kills with 29 in home wins over the Rebels and Razorbacks, but the league office voted for Tennessee's Farren Powe instead. Powe hit .593 on the weekend, but with just 18 kills, while helping extend Tennessee's winning streak to seven matches.
Home Not as Hospitable Recently
The Gamecocks are looking to reverse a recent trend in regards to their home record. Last season, the squad went 8-5 at home, which was its best mark since 2002. However, from 2003-07, South Carolina was just 31-31 (.500) at the Volleyball Competition Facility and had just two season above .500 in that period. In the seven previous seasons since moving into the building, the squad never had a losing home record and owned a 75-16 (.824) record. This season, the Gamecocks are 9-1 at home, taking the first six before falling to nationally-ranked Kentucky. Four of those nine wins came over 2007 NCAA Tournament teams: College of Charleston, Clemson, LSU and Mississippi.
Gamecock Version of Triplets
The Indianapolis Colts were the most recent version of "triplets" in the NFL, while it's believed that the Dallas Cowboys originated the term talking about the team's top three players. For the Gamecocks, the triplets are senior Belita Salters, junior Ivana Kujundzic and sophomore Megan Laughlin. As shown below, Kujundzic has led the Gamecocks 13 of the 24 matches this season in kills, while Salters has topped the squad seven times and Laughlin four. What that chart doesn't show you is the consistency of the top three. Kujundzic has ranked second in nine of those 11 matches that she didn't lead, while Laughlin and Salters have also stood second seven times each. Others have stepped up when needed, as Meredith Moorhead and Annie Thomas have each ranked second in kills once. Moorhead has even led the squad once this season, at No. 8 Florida. And freshman Teresa Stenlund did her best Laughlin or Salters impression during her one start, providing a great second option on offense against LSU. Sophomore Hannah Lawing has also gotten in on the act, tying Salters for first in the home sweep of Arkansas.
Some Like It Better at Home
It's not all that uncommon for teams to play better at home. Some Gamecocks, though, have a stark difference in statistics from home and away. Ivana Kujundzic has been much better at the Volleyball Competition Facility, averaging 4.30 kills per set on a .318 hitting percentage. Compare that to her 3.22 kills-per-set mark and .218 hitting percentage away from Columbia. Her defense, however, has been better away from home, making 3.13 digs per frame on the road compared to 2.64 at home. Belita Salters also seems to be a homebody, hitting .522 at home compared to .348 on the road. Meredith Moorhead hits .347 on the South Carolina campus and .177 elsewhere. As a team, the Gamecocks hit .109 higher at home (.334-.225) and make over two kills a set more than they have in 14 matches away from Columbia.
Blocking Is a Team Effort
With a lot of experience back, it makes working together easier. That has really come into play with the Gamecocks' blocking efforts in 2008. The team still is led by Belita Salters and Megan Laughlin in the middle, but they have gotten a lot of help up front. Five of the six regular front-row players average around a block per match (0.3 blocks per set) in 2008, with the other checking in at 0.21 blocks per set, just below that threshold. Last season, five Gamecocks ended the year above that 0.3 mark.
Maybe Not a Team Effort, but Avoiding Blocks Are Good, Too
So far the Gamecocks have been adept at avoiding the opposition's blocking schemes. South Carolina has been blocked an average of 1.78 times per set this season, which ranks third in the SEC. Kentucky leads the way with a 1.37 mark, while Alabama's opponents have maintained a 1.57 blocks-per-set average this season. When South Carolina gets more blocks than they hit into, they are 10-0 on the year.
Just Some Love, That's All We Want
The Carolina Gamecocks have put themselves in impressive company, defeating seven teams that played in last year's NCAA Tournament. Only two other teams not in last year's field have matched that, including Illinois and Miami (Fla.). The Illini are currently ranked, while neither South Carolina or Miami are (though both did receive votes for two weeks: Sept. 22 and Sept. 29). Illinois deserves to be ranked with their Big Ten wins, but an argument can be made for the other two as well, especially South Carolina. The Gamecocks defeated three teams that won in the first round, (Dayton, Clemson and LSU), while the Hurricanes have just two wins over a team that made it out of the first round, both over Duke. The rest of South Carolina's wins (UNLV, College of Charleston, Alabama and Mississippi) could be seen as stronger than Miami's (Alabama, South Dakota State, Texas State and Sacramento State twice).
A Pair of Streaks End, One Survives
Two Gamecocks saw their consecutive sets-played streak come to an end during the opening weekend of SEC play. Middle blockers Belita Salters and Megan Laughlin both missed the match against LSU due to different ailments. That ended streaks of 141 and 140 straight sets played, respectively, for the pair. The longest current streak is held by Ivana Kujundzic, who has played in 180 straight sets, dating back to the Boston College match in 2007.
Kujundzic Takes Home Weekly Awards
Junior outside hitter Ivana Kujundzic picked up the Gamecocks' first SEC award of the season, claiming the Offensive Player of the Week certificate on Monday, Sept. 15. Kujundzic also earned the CVU.com National Player of the Week award, the first national award for a Gamecock volleyball player since Sept. 16, 2006. The Subotica, Serbia, native averaged 4.36 kills and 3.09 digs per set with a .355 hitting percentage during the Carolina Challenge. She nearly single-handedly won the fifth set against archrival Clemson, recording six kills, including four that staved off match point or set up Carolina for the win.
Series History Against Auburn
South Carolina has won 18 of the 25 meetings against the Tigers in history. Last season, the squad's split, with each team winning its road match. The Garnet and Black picked up a 3-1 win on the plains earlier this season. In Columbia, the Gamecocks hold a slim 7-5 advantage.
Scouting the Tigers
Auburn enters the weekend with a 6-19 overall record and a 1-13 SEC mark. Their lone league win came last Friday night at home against Mississippi State. The Tigers average one more dig than their foes per set this season, the only category they hold an advantage. Jessica Glover is the offense, averaging 3.29 kills per set with the squad's second-highest hitting percentage at .242. Glover also leads the team with 0.59 blocks per game while standing second with 2.43 digs per set. Sara Shanks is the setter, dishing out 8.39 assists per frame. Libero Liz Crouch tallies 3.58 digs per set.