Courtesy: South Carolina Athletics
COLUMBIA, S.C. – The South Carolina volleyball program released its 2018 schedule on Wednesday. The Gamecocks, under the direction of first-year head coach Tom Mendoza, hold their annual Garnet and Black scrimmage on Aug. 18, and kick off the regular season on Aug. 24 with a weekend home tournament.
Season tickets go on sale July 3, $25 for adults and $10 for youth 17 and under.
South Carolina returns all but two of its letter winners from 2017, and bringing back five starters plus its libero. All-SEC performer Mikayla Shields enters her junior season in striking range of 1,000 career kills, and will be bolstered by three other returners – Mikayla Robinson, Claire Edwards, and Alicia Starr– who went over 150 kills last season. The team added another key piece to the offense with outside hitter Brittany McLean transferring in from Minnesota, the junior is one of four newcomers to the roster. Running the show in her third season is Courtney Koehler, who set the sophomore rally-scoring record for assists in a season in 2017 (with 1,123).
The defensive returners are just as impressive for the Gamecocks. Robinson finished with 121 total blocks last fall, third-most for a single season in the program’s rally-scoring era and the most by any freshman in the SEC in 2017. Behind her is senior libero Aubrey Ezell, who ranked among the best in the SEC with 527 digs last season and also led the conference with 49 service aces. Both Shields and Koehler also doubled their dig totals from freshman year to sophomore year, providing crucial ball control for the team.
“As we prepare for the season, I can see a path for our team to earn an NCAA bid, which is what these student-athletes have worked so hard to pursue,” Mendoza said. “I know our group is excited to get going, August can’t come soon enough and hopefully our faithful fans are eager to see this team fight all season long. We look forward to making the Carolina Volleyball Center one of the best venues in the country.”
WEEK ONE: AT HOME TO START MENDOZA ERA
- Texas A&M – Corpus Christi (8/24): The Islanders went 15-14 in 2017, with an 11-5 record in the Southland Conference. The team lost standouts Kristyn Nicholson (9.83 assist per set) and Brittany Gilpin (3.56 points per set) from the 2017 roster, but will be led by returners Madison Green (2.46 kills per set) and libero Madison Woods (4.46 digs per set).
- ETSU (8/24): East Tennessee State are the defending SoCon champions, finishing 2017 with a 19-12 overall record. Though the team did lose Rylee Milhorn (339 kills, 259 digs in 2017), it does bring back its second- and third-ranked offensive performers with outside Leah Clayton and opposite AJ Lux, as well as top blocker Braedyn Tutton (116 blocks) and libero Marija Popovic (4.85 digs per set).
- Clemson (8/25): The Tigers went 7-25 in their first season under head coach Michaela Franklin, but return leading offensive producer Kaylin Korte (349 kills in 2017). Adding to the mix will be six newcomers, highlighted by Ohio State transfer Brooke Bailey.
WEEK TWO: ROAD SEASON KICKS OFF AT RICE
- Liberty (8/31): The Flames were just 12-19 last season, but return a two-woman attack of Anna Gragg (2.80 kills per set), and Anna Goodwin (2.58 kills per set) that led the offense last season. The team also returned both starting setters and starting libero Margaret Latchford (4.08 digs per set).
- Rice (8/31): The Owls went 21-9 last season, making the National Invitational tournament. The team has a talented young core, led by sophomore Nicole Lennon, who was named Conference USA’s freshman of the year in 2017 after leading all freshmen nationally with 1,313 attacks and ranking second in the conference with 425 kills. She’s joined by junior middle Grace Morgan, who paired her 319 kills with a team-high 124 blocks. Defensively, junior libero Lee Ann Cunningham passed 1,000 career digs in just two seasons and averaged 4.72 digs per set in 2017.
- Houston Baptist (9/1): The Huskies were another 20-win team, going 21-10 and 11-5 in the Southland Conference, but were hit particularly hard by graduation. Gone are the top two attackers, Bailey Banks and Jessica Wooten, who accounted for 49 percent of the team’s total kills as well as 41 percent of its total digs. Picking up the slack could be sophomore Ashtyn Richey (1.88 kills per set in 2017) and Kayla Davenport, the two leading returners to the team this fall.
WEEK THREE: GAMECOCKS FACE ROAD WEEKEND AT MARYLAND
- Georgetown (9/8): The Hoyas are also starting 2018 with a new coaching staff, as Toby Rens looks to turn around a team that finished 2017 with an 8-22 record. Middle blocker Symone Speech will be a key member of the rebuild, as the senior is coming off a season with a team-high 446 kills while hitting an impressive .377. She also led the team with 96 blocks. She’ll need to connect with a new setter after the departure of Paige McKnight, but fellow seniors Alyssa Sinnette (311 kills, 201 digs in 2017) and Kenzie Higareda (475 digs, 34 aces) will join her as team leaders.
- Maryland (9/8): The Terps are also working with a new coach, despite posting an 18-14 overall record in 2017. The team will have a lot of offense to replace after losing four of its top five kills leaders from 2017. The lone returner is pin Erika Pritchard, who finished second on the team with 331 kills. Maryland will also look to replace its leading defender at the net and back line after losing its top blocker and libero from 2017.
- Colgate (9/9): The Raiders are poised to be the team to watch in the Patriot League this season, as they return all the key pieces from a 2017 campaign that saw the team finish 18-11. The centerpiece is sophomore Ali Lowe, who averaged 3.88 kills per set in her freshman season, earning her the conference freshman of the year award. The team’s entire top five for kills return, accounting for 85 percent of the team’s total. Also returning is the team’s libero, sophomore Bridget Kolsky, and its leading blocker, Jaelah Hutchison.
WEEK FOUR: AT VCU FOR FINAL NON-CONFERENCE WEEKEND
- Toledo (9/14): The Rockets finished 2017 with a 12-16 overall record, 7-9 in the Mid-American Conference. The team’s offense was well-balanced last season, with four different attackers surpassing 200 kills for the year. Three of those four have since graduated, leaving sophomore Emma Swope and her 203 kills as the leading returner. The team also returns both setters, Brianna Foster and Carly Townsend, and libero Maurissa Leonard (5.58 digs per set in 2017).
- Virginia (9/15): The Cavaliers are in the second season of a rebuild under head coach Aaron Smith, coming off a 7-24 campaign in his first year at the helm. The team is very young coming out of the spring exhibition season, with nine of the 11 players on the roster either freshmen or sophomores. Coming back for 2018 will be almost 90 percent of the total offensive contributors, including its setters, and four of the team’s top five finishers for digs from 2017.
- VCU (9/15): The Rams will be perhaps the team’s toughest non-conference foe, as they come off a 30-3 season that saw them win the Atlantic 10 and reel off a 27-match win streak. Now coming into 2018, VCU will return all but one of its top six kill contributors, along with both setters. Despite the wealth of returning attackers, it will be the defense that should make the Rams a team to watch this fall, as all four of its top blockers return to a net defense that averaged 3.29 blocks per set in 2017.
“Non-conference scheduling continues to be increasingly important in terms of NCAA bids and seeding, and I feel really good about the way our schedule came together,” Mendoza said. “We’ll play a lot of 20-plus-win teams who are competing for league championships. Our group will have to play at our best each match, and we should come out well-prepared for SEC play.”
SEC SCHEDULE HIGHLIGHTS
- The team begins conference play with a weekend homestand against Mississippi State and LSU on Sept. 21 and 23, respectively.
South Carolina faces perhaps the toughest schedules in the conference, with home-and-away series with each of the top five finishers in the SEC from 2017 (Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, LSU and Georgia).
- There will be three mid-week matchups, with Wednesday matches at Arkansas (Oct. 17), at Tennessee (Oct. 24) and home for Kentucky (Nov. 21).
- The team will host Alumnae Night on Oct. 12 against Florida.
- Senior night will be held on Nov. 16 against Ole Miss.
- The official television broadcast schedule will officially be announced later in the summer.
“The 18-match unbalanced schedule of the SEC can provide some volatility year-to-year depending on which teams you play twice,” Mendoza said. “I believe we have the highest-rated SEC schedule this year, which we see as a positive. We play each of the top five teams from last year twice, plus Texas A&M, which is traditionally a top team in the league. We’re excited to be tested on a nightly basis, and there are a lot of opportunities to get top-50 wins that would build our resume. This is exactly what you want when you compete in a conference as strong as ours.”
2018 South Carolina Volleyball Schedule
8/24 vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
8/24 vs. ETSU
8/25 vs. Clemson
8/31 vs. Liberty
8/31 at Rice
9/1 vs. Houston Baptist
9/5 vs. Charlotte
9/8 vs. Georgetown
9/8 at Maryland
9/9 vs. Colgate
9/14 vs. Toledo
9/15 vs. Virginia
9/15 at VCU
9/21 vs. Mississippi State *
9/23 vs. LSU *
9/28 at Alabama *
9/30 at Georgia *
10/5 at Missouri *
10/7 vs. Texas A&M *
10/12 vs. Florida *
10/17 at Arkansas *
10/21 vs. Georgia *
10/24 at Tennessee *
10/28 at Kentucky *
11/02 vs. Missouri *
11/4 vs. Auburn *
11/9 at Texas A&M *
11/16 vs. Ole Miss *
11/18 at LSU *
11/21 vs. Kentucky *
11/23 at Florida *