South Carolina women relish challenge of Sweet 16

South Carolina women relish challenge of Sweet 16

By Jeff Owens/Photos by SC Athletics

Brigit Folland has won more than 90 singles matches in her four-year career at South Carolina, and more than 170 matches total counting doubles. 

She's played in the NCAA Tournament three times. But there's one thing Folland has yet to accomplish in her storied Gamecock career. 

She will get to do that Friday in Athens, Ga. 

"I'm a senior so I've been waiting four years to get to the Sweet 16," said Folland, a senior from Bristol, United Kingdom."It's finally here and I feel like we have put in a ton of good work so we're ready and all excited and can do good things in Athens."

Gamecocks beat Texas to reach Sweet 16

The No. 14 Gamecocks, 20-7, will play No. 3 seed Ohio State Friday at noon. It's the first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2009 and the first in six years under head coach Kevin Epley. 

South Carolina won two home matches in the Regionals in Columbia, beating North Florida and No. 22 Texas to advance to the Sweet 16. It had made the NCAA Tournament in each of Epley's first five seasons, but this is the first time advancing beyond the second round, accomplishing a major goal for the program. 

"It's a big event. Kevin has talked about it all year, that Athens is the biggest stage for us," said junior Hadley Berg, who has led Carolina with 29 singles wins and is 21-1 in Dual play. "Once we're there, anything can happen."

"We are really fired up," said Epley, who got a Gatorade bath from his team after beating Texas last Saturday. "Last year that was our goal. We hosted and wound up losing to Georgia Tech and didn't feel like we played our best match. Early in the fall we sat around and made some goals and decided that this year was going to be the year we were going to host and get through. 

"It's great to reap the fruits of our labor a little bit more each year and getting to the Sweet 16 and hopefully further."

The Gamecocks face an Ohio State team that was ranked No. 2 in the country much of the season and is seeded third overall. But like most sports teams in the SEC, the Gamecocks have the benefit of playing in the best conference in the nation. 

The SEC has 11 teams in the tournament and had 11 in the Top 25 at the end of the regular season. The conference is so strong that Florida was ranked No. 1 in the nation most of the year, but was seeded third in the SEC tournament. 

Epley and his team believe that gives the Gamecocks an edge over Ohio State, which features the No. 1 ranked player in the country in Francesca Di Lorenzo.

"We have been exposed to that level all year so it has kinda hardened us and gotten us used to that level, so nothing is going to surprise us," Epley said. 

"Each match has been an absolute battle, so I think mentally and physically we are prepared to go the distance in the tournament," Folland added. 

Epley also hopes his team can take advantage of the heat and it's top-notch conditioning. Ohio State plays many of its matches indoors, and it's supposed to be in the 90s Friday in Athens. 

"We are happy to get them down South where the heat is here, and hopefully them having to play a few longer rallies," Epley said. 

Though Ohio State has five of the top 112 singles players in the country, South Carolina hopes to play to its strengths. It has one of the strongest doubles lineups in the country, and won the doubles point in each of the first two rounds. 

Folland and Berg are also strong at No. 5 and No. 6 singles, combining to go 40-4 in Dual matches. No. 2 Mia Horvit is ranked No. 47 in the nation and won both her matches last week, clinching both matches for the team. 

"We have been getting a lot of points at the lower end of our lineup, so they are going to have to contend with those players and they are going to contend with our doubles, which we feel like is starting to come into form now," Epley said. 

Folland and Berg, two of the veterans of the team, like the pressure of having the team rely on them in both singles and doubles. 

"I love doing that for the team," said Folland, the No. 1 junior player in the UK before coming to South Carolina. "Having that position, you could say it's pressure but I kinda enjoy that and I think we both do our bit for the team and give them the comfort to know that, hopefully, we can get that point so they can swing out and play their game. I feel like that gives the team confidence."

Epley's biggest challenge is preparing his team mentally for its toughest test yet — one it has been building toward for five years. 

"Any time you get to a new level, it's going to be a new experience for a lot of them. The key is to diminish that," he said. "It's really going to be to focus on the things that we do well and realize that you don't have to overplay in these scenarios, your regular stuff is good enough. What we did got us here and what we do will get us further." 

His team is ready.

"When you get to a stage like that, anything can happen," Folland said. "We deserve to be there. We have put in the work. We take each match as it goes and stay in the present and see what happens."