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March 19, 2014

Sand volleyball team plays first match in new facility Friday

South Carolina is looking to kick a little sand in Oregon’s face Friday night.

South Carolina is looking to kick a little sand in Oregon’s face Friday night.

With the opening of the new Carolina Sand Volleyball Facility, the Gamecocks will play their first home match in program history against the Ducks. The coaches and players are ready to break it in.

“We’re expecting a lot of fan support and a loud stadium. We really want to make this a place where it’s hard for other teams to compete,” junior Paige Wheeler said. “The sand is a little deeper than other facilities we played, and, hopefully, teams will come in here and it’ll be a loud environment and deeper sand so they’ll have to adapt quickly.”

The $995,000 facility, which sits just beyond the right-field fence of the Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham Field, features a fenced-in area with five sand courts, one large scoreboard, a smaller scoreboard at each court, and bleachers for fans.

Coach Moritz Moritz believes the other teams in the field this weekend – Oregon, UAB, LSU, Louisiana-Monroe, Mercer, and College of Charleston – will be impressed by USC’s entry into the sport.

“There’s nobody who’s going to come into our facility and expect to see what they’re going to see,” Moritz said. “I don’t think anybody in the country is blowing it up the way we are. I genuinely believe we have the best facility in the country.”

The Gamecocks (2-4) will play Oregon on Friday at 7 p.m. with Saturday games against UAB at 3:15 p.m. and LSU at 7 p.m. They will finish Sunday against ULM at 1:15 p.m. Moritz credited the athletics administration for the support in getting the start-up program off the ground, and his players concurred.

“I did not expect this facility this year,” Wheeler said. “They keep adding little finishing touches. It’s amazing. We’re very appreciative. We’ve had a good start.”

The team began the season on the road with four matches in Jacksonville, where they lost to North Florida and Florida International while defeating Jacksonville and Florida Atlantic for the first wins in program history. They continued the spring break trip with a stop in Atlanta, where they lost to Mercer and Georgia State.

The growth of the sport can be directly tied to the high visibility it has experienced in the Summer Olympics since 1996 as well as the success of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, who teamed to win the gold medal for the USA in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games.

The college matches consist of five two-on-two competitions playing best-of-three sets. Senior Megan Kent has paired with Wheeler in the No. 1 spot for most of USC’s matches to date, and the two former USC indoor players are figuring out the best way to play on sand.

“The transition is very different, and we’re learning a lot,” Kent said. “The first tournament, we learned what we need to improve on, what we’re good and what we’re doing bad. This week in practice, we’ve been working on those, for sure.”

Wheeler likes how the 17-player roster has come together.

“We’re definitely impressed with how we’ve competed,” she said. “We didn’t really know what to expect going into it. A lot of us were pretty nervous about it.”

While Oregon and LSU both have first-year programs, too, Moritz put together a challenging schedule for his team to push it.

“It’s acclimating from the hardwood to the sand. But I think taking that to the next step and competing two weekends ago was a huge step for us,” he said. “We’re learning and absorbing from the way other teams are coached and the way other teams play and embracing that in our own game plan.”

He would like nothing more than for his team to play well in its first matches in the new facility, but he’s looking at the long-term as much as the short-term.

“You want your players to compete at their absolute highest level. We don’t focus on the wins and losses right now,” he said. “We’re working on how we get better and how we improve.”

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