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USC volleyball snapped a 16-year NCAA drought last season. How far can it go in 2019?

In 2018, Year 1 under new coach Tom Mendoza, South Carolina volleyball managed to win 20 matches for the first time since 2009, snap a 16-year postseason drought and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for just the fifth time in program history.

So what can the Gamecocks do in Year 2?

“I think it’s every person’s dream to be a national champion,” senior Mikayla Shields said. “But I think that my goal is just to be able to leave here and know that I left and our team left and my class left a legacy that people will come to South Carolina and be like, ‘This is where I want to be because of the culture and the type of people and the coaches and everything that makes South Carolina the amazing program that it is.’”

Building a legacy means building on last year’s success, and USC seems well positioned to do so — Mendoza returns all six of last year’s starters and Carolina received votes in the preseason coaches’ top 25 poll.

Shields, a two-time All-SEC honoree, is one of six seniors the Gamecocks will lean on to provide veteran leadership. The majority of that class came in as freshmen in 2016 and immediately won 18 games, the program’s most in four years. Then the team bottomed out in 2017, going 12-18 while coach Scott Swanson was fired midway through the season, before roaring back last season.

“There’s no question we’re returning a lot of experience,” Mendoza said. “And so there’s a lot of things that we don’t have to explain this year. And even to our freshmen, our upperclassmen are helping us set the tone, set the standard and just kind of know the way that we want things. And now, after going to the NCAA tournament, they know that if we do those things right, it can get us there.”

Last year’s success, however, hasn’t left the team complacent, they say.

“We want more. Like we want to do more with this program,” senior Courtney Koehler said. “And that’s something that our senior class has been trying to do since we got here our freshman year. We knew that we hadn’t been to the tournament in 16 years. And we tried to want to make this program the best that it can be. ... Everyone just is on the same mindset that we want to accomplish more this year.”

The Gamecocks open their season in Pittsburgh on Aug. 30, facing off against Cincinnati, itself an NCAA tournament last season. With a challenging nonconference slate before entering SEC play, Mendoza says he’s been pleased with the intensity and competitiveness his players have already shown him in practice, but reiterated his philosophy of building an NCAA resume match by match.

“I hope they’re excited about what they’re doing, about what’s in front of them. I think there’s that balance because, yes, we want them to try to push to go even further, be even more successful, keep pushing past the comfort zone of what South Carolina volleyball is going to be and and really see how far we can get. And we’ve got a really good group. But there’s that balance of trying to get a little bit further, but not taking for granted anything,” Mendoza said.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.
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