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August 28, 2013

Volleyball preview: USC starting to come together

Just when Juliette Thévenin was starting to get comfortable, more changes came.

Just when Juliette Thévenin was starting to get comfortable, more changes came.

A daughter of a volleyball coach, Thévenin moved from her home in Belgium to Columbia and instantly had to adjust to the American style of volleyball as well as the American lifestyle. She felt like an outsider, the only foreigner on USC’s volleyball team.

And after starting all of her freshman season and finally beginning to feel adjusted, USC went through a coaching change. The Gamecocks’ top hitter was overwhelmed. Thévenin played volleyball with her dad since she was 2, then she had to learn a new style and here was a new coach who was bringing in a different way of doing things.

Though the past two years have been a roller-coaster, she’s as comfortable as she’s ever been in her senior year, buying into coach Scott Swanson’s culture. With an inexperienced team behind her, Thévenin will once again play a huge role in USC’s success this season, but with Swanson’s improved recruiting and a changed mentality, Thévenin will have more help around her, and the Gamecocks hope to be better for it.

"We talk about it a lot: What would we do without Juliette? It seems like she’s always the one we need to bail us out," Swanson said. "That’s the way it’s going to continue to be. She’s our go-to player, so she still will get a lot of sets, but I think the good thing is we have more weapons to go to now than we did in the past. That’s going to take a little bit of pressure off her."

Thévenin and libero Lindsey Craft are the only two seniors on a team with 10 freshmen. The two and fellow captain Kellie McNeil took initiative over the summer, guiding the newcomers through typical practice drills and open gym sessions, so that when NCAA rules permitted Swanson and the coaching staff to work with the team, he wouldn’t have to start from zero.

When the Gamecocks open the season against South Carolina State and Florida International on Friday, the starting lineup will have Thévenin as the only senior and libero Michaela Christiaansen as the only junior. Middle blocker Darian Dozier and setter McNeil will be the two sophomore starters, and Katlyn McDaniel out of Spring Valley High and Dessaa Legros will start as freshmen.

"I feel like the athleticism they’re bringing is going to make up for some of their lack of experience," Swanson said. "We have a lot more kids that jump higher, hit harder and are faster. We’re getting closer and closer to what the upper echelon of the SEC is recruiting."

Thévenin hated how opposing teams zeroed in on stopping her because she’s taking most of the team’s swings. But Swanson kept telling Thévenin she didn’t have to take on all of the pressure. With the team coming off its second winning record in the past decade, Thévenin believes there’ll be less pressure on her this year, even if she is the only starting senior.

After the team started 13-0 last year, she found herself believing in Swanson a lot more. After three bumpy years, she’s right where she wants to be.

"I think after the really good start that we had last year, it was like, oh, we can really do it," Thévenin said. "We’re capable of winning games and actually going together in the same direction, and we had never been like that before. Even my freshman year when I got here and then my sophomore year, it was not like that at all. Last year, we were like, ’We can do it, and we can get this program in the right direction.’"

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