It's been six years since the South Carolina volleyball team has posted a winning conference record.
During that season, fourth-year head coach Scott Swanson was coaching at Minnesota, one year away from a national semifinals appearance.
The next three games will tell us if this year’s team has the potential to take the next big step in Swanson’s rebuilding project.
Sunday’s road test at Alabama (15-3, 3-1 SEC) marks the beginning of a three-game stretch that will also pit the Gamecocks (13-3, 3-1 SEC) against No. 9 Florida and No. 19 Texas A&M.
Though Swanson won't shy away from the fact that his team is the underdog for the near future, he believes they has the capability to turn a few heads with a big win this weekend.
“It’s not out of the question at all,” Swanson said. “I think we’re very good when we’re playing consistently, and that’s what we’re striving for this week is to find that consistency with what we’re doing.”
Inconsistency has popped up in Swanson’s references to his team’s play earlier in the season, but this sentiment is now more prevalent after South Carolina nearly blew a two-set lead Sunday at Auburn.
The Gamecocks held tough, however, delivering four blocks during a convincing 15-10 win in the deciding set.
Moving forward, Swanson said his centers need to be riskier in an attempt to get power hitters such as sophomore middle back Jacqy Angermiller and junior middle back Darian Dozier going, as they head into the bulk of the conference schedule.
“We have some talent out there,” Swanson said. “It’s just about doing it consistently and making sure that we execute that gameplan.”
Despite South Carolina’s bundle of power hitters, its style of play has not showcased the weapons it has at its disposal. Entering this weekend, the Gamecocks rank in the bottom half of the SEC in hitting percentage, assists, kills and service aces.
If South Carolina is to separate itself from its recent stretch of mediocre seasons, improved offensive efficiency is a must. Swanson, who acknowledges that “silly errors” won’t slide against upcoming opponents, is exploring every avenue to speed up the transformation.
“We’re trying to diversify our offense more,” Swanson said. “Part of that is very much dependent on our ball control. As our ball control improves, we’ll be able to run our middles more.”
Defensive intensity has carried the Gamecocks to their hottest SEC start since the 2008 team won six of its first seven conference matches. South Carolina currently leads the SEC in opponent hitting percentage and blocks per set, while ranking second in digs per set.
Swanson credited assistant coach R.J. Abella for his game planning against opponents to aid in his players’ positioning both at the net and the back line.
The underlying theme of the 2014 campaign has been the ongoing development of several young players in key positions. Freshman outside hitter Taylr McNeil and sophomore outside hitter KoKo Atoa-Williams continue to pace the team’s offensive attack, ranking 4th and 19th in the SEC respectively in kills.
However, it's the third and fourth options that Swanson is trying to incorporate to boost his team’s offensive output.
Ten days from now, we'll have a much better idea of where this year’s South Carolina team stands in relation to the rest of the SEC. Until then, Swanson can only hope that the hard work he and his team have been putting in will pay off when the Gamecocks take the court Sunday.
“I am genuinely hoping that through hard work and focus this week that we are able to go out and execute a game plan,” Swanson said. “And play at a high enough level that we can upset them.”