By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
Two years ago, when South Carolina won its second straight NCAA Tournament match to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008, there was a wild celebration on the court, with head coach Kevin Epley trying to run away from his excited team as they drenched him a Gatorade bath.
When South Carolina beat Virginia last weekend to return to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, there was no such celebration. That’s because the SEC champions and No. 4 seed Gamecocks have their eye on a much bigger prize.
“We have a lot bigger goals and we have a lot bigger expectations for ourselves,” senior Paige Cline said after the 4-2 win over Virginia in the second round. “We can celebrate a little bit but we just look at what we can do better in the next match. We have a lot of stuff we can do better, which is exciting. We have a lot more room to grow and we are not playing at our full potential yet.”
The Gamecocks (22-3) return to the court Saturday at Carolina Tennis Center to take on Southern Cal in the round of 16 and the NCAA’s first-ever tennis Super Regional. The winner will earn a spot in the Elite Eight in Orlando May 17. Saturday’s match has been rescheduled from 2 pm. to 9 a.m. due to impending weather.
The fact that his team was not overly excited about advancing to the Sweet 16 is a good sign to Epley. He noticed the change in focus earlier this year when South Carolina knocked off SEC rival Vanderbilt and no one ran onto the court after the deciding match.
“Sometimes we get too high with some of the wins and I think that is a dangerous thing to do,” he said. “[Winning] became an expectation, we are supposed to win. I think that’s a change in our mentality. Yes, we won, but we are supposed to win these matches. We very rarely storm the court. We did when we won the SEC championship, and we’ll do the same if we can win a national championship, but we have a lot of work ahead of us and we’ll save court-storming for when the whole thing is over.”
After a record-setting regular season, which included a program-best No. 3 ranking at the end of the regular season, Epley’s team has its eye on getting to Orlando, where the national championship will be decided next weekend. The win over Virginia was a big step after an emotional victory over No. 1 Georgia to win the program’s first SEC championship.
Epley’s focus after the strong regular season was to push his team to remain focused during the postseason.
“For two years we had been very good in the regular season, but in the postseason we have struggled,” he said. “We had never done well in the SEC Tournament. This year we really checked that box and really felt good about ourselves and really felt like we reached a goal we had aspired to for a long time. Then it’s really a matter of when you do that to come back to earth. That’s what we have been battling, getting back to earth.
“I think we are back down to earth and they are ready to get back to work.”
The Gamecocks will face Southern Cal, the No. 13 seed, for the second time this season. That Gamecocks lost to the Trojans 4-1 in January during a trip to the Australian Open. But No. 1 singles player Ingrid Martins, the SEC Player of the Year, and other key players, did not play in that match.
“Both teams will be a little more intense and a little more on their game,” Epley said. “I would expect both teams will be stronger and a little more competition ready. We know their team, they know our team, some of the players will be a little different. “It will be an intense match.”
“We are looking forward to the rematch and I think we can do better and show them what we have,” Martins said.