When South Carolina and No. 8 Florida face off Wednesday night, it will be a matchup between two very different volleyball programs.
“We’re in completely different situations as programs,” South Carolina head coach Scott Swanson said. “They’re super established and we’re rebuilding.”
The Gators have built their program into a perennial powerhouse by achieving 23 straight winning seasons while capturing 20 SEC championships during that time.
Meanwhile, South Carolina (13-4, 3-2) has not made the NCAA tournament since 2002, and the Gamecocks are still looking to finish above .500 in conference play for the first time since 2008.
While Swanson is interested in how his team will compete against one of the nation’s top squads, he’s worried less about the challenges Florida could pose, and more about how his players continue to improve.
“We want to keep improving, and we want to keep playing better volleyball,” Swanson said. “That might be a tough, tall order against Florida, but we’re really a lot more concerned about what we’re doing on our side of the net.”
Overall, the Gamecocks have improved considerably compared to last season as South Carolina has already bettered its 2013 win total by one game. Also, Swanson’s team has already won three conference matches through five games while last year’s team won just three SEC matches during the entire season.
Part of South Carolina’s improved play can be attributed to junior middle blocker Darian Dozier.
Through 17 matches, Dozier ranks second amongst SEC players with 90 blocks on the season.
In Dozier’s mind, the Gamecocks have made strides this season and a lot of that has to do with a new sense of resilience, especially within contests.
“I think we’ve gotten better at fighting throughout the whole match and not letting things bring us down as a team,” Dozier said. “Of course we have our moments where we might be going through a little slump in a game, you know. But I think we have a lot of energy within our team, and we have really good chemistry with our teammates.”
In order to have a chance against the Gators, South Carolina will have to play its best game of the season, while staying error-free and keeping a strong mentality to overcome Florida’s dominant offensive attack.
The Gators average 13.83 kills per set, second best in the SEC, and their .298 hitting percentage ranks fifth nationally.
“We have to play with no fear,” Swanson said. “I think that if we made a mistake, the biggest mistake for us could be going in there and being afraid because of how intimidating they can be. You have to stand up to that and not fear what Florida brings.”
Dozier realizes how talented and physical Florida is, but she’s looking forward to the challenge of battling against an elite team.
“It’s a big game. I can’t wait to go out there and show everyone what we’re made of,” Dozier said. “It’s going to be a huge fight.”
Swanson is realistic enough to recognize the talent gap between the Gators and the Gamecocks, but he also knows the better team on paper doesn’t always win.
“It’s not unheard of,” Swanson said. “Upsets do happen and that’s why you have to play them.”