NCAA beach volleyball countdown: Can No. 11 South Carolina be the giant killers of 2020?

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South Carolina beach volleyball 2/9/2020-Carly Schnieder
South Carolina senior Carly Schnieder

This is the second of 12 stories previewing the top teams competing in NCAA beach volleyball this season; the first covers Cal beach volleyball:

The 2020 beach volleyball season is no different from any other in terms of the end game: Everyone, from the USC of the east (South Carolina) to the USC of the west (Southern California), is vying to make the NCAA Championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Katie Smith, and her three fellow seniors at South Carolina, weren’t going to deny that.

“We want to go back to Gulf Shores,” said Smith, a 5-foot-9 senior from West Chester, Ohio, who led the Gamecocks with 23 wins in 2019. “But I think in order to have that goal and achieve that goal we need to not dwell on the losses we had in the past. We want to win each day so the process leads us to the overall goal of reaching Gulf Shores.”

So yes, Gulf Shores in May is the goal, but this year South Carolina isn’t going to look so far ahead that it stumbles on the steps immediately in front of them.

Such was the case sometimes in 2019, when the Gamecocks proved to be one of the strongest teams in the country, and then, bizarrely, sometimes in the same week, a middle-of-the-pack program. Before mid-March, South Carolina had logged wins against No. 4 LSU and second-ranked USC. Within a month of those wins, the Gamecocks would also suffer losses to unranked TCU, the College of Charleston, and No. 16 Georgia State.

“We just have to work on balancing the highs and the lows because we had a couple bad losses to balance out a couple of those big wins,” Smith said. “If we find our middle and our consistency and our energy and just play free of expectations and just come in and play how we play, we’ll be able to not be so fluctuating with our energy and our consistency and able to win a lot of our higher competition matches.”

Smith and her fellow seniors Carly Schnieder (another Ohioan from Cincinnati), Franky Harrison (Knoxville, Tennessee) and Hannah Edelman (Hilton Head, S.C.) are all well aware of what it takes to sustain that level of play throughout a season. They made the NCAA Championships in their freshmen and sophomore seasons, piling up 23 and 24 wins in each. This season, they’re looking to make 2019’s 20-11 campaign the exception, not the norm, to South Carolina beach volleyball.

Returning are Schneider (18-11 in 2019), Harrison (20-11), Edelman (20-10), Jess Vastine (19-11), Smith (23-8) and Whitley Ballard (13-6), while South Carolina has added Morgyn Greer, a graduate transfer from Florida, and Texas A&M-Kingsville transfer Madison Brabham.

“Our class stepping into a leadership role is a totally new year for us and trying to find our leadership roles, finding out how the freshmen and graduate students fit in their roles,” Harrison said. “It’s been something we’ve been figuring out all fall and now in the spring. I think all of them have found their place and we’re really excited about what they’re adding to the team.”

What everyone is adding to the team is the collective mindset of short-term goals. One practice, one match, one tournament at a time. Do that enough, and the Gamecocks will be back in Alabama again.

“We decided our team motto this year is to win the day,” Edelman said. “We’re just going into every practice, every game that we can and we’re just trying to win the day rather than have that large, overall goal. I think a lot of people have already counted us out this year but because of our focus every day, I think we do have a good chance to get back.”

Next up: No. 10 Stetson

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