Last season, the South Carolina women's tennis team started 6-0 in the SEC, which was the first time that had ever happened. They were 14-2 overall and ranked No. 8 in the country.
However, the Gamecocks were 5-6 the rest of the season and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on their home court.
Head coach Kevin Epley and his staff learned from that experience, and the Gamecocks find themselves in a much better position as they prepare to start the SEC tournament on Friday night. After starting league play 2-3, South Carolina has won six of eight conference matchups to earn the No. 4 seed and a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
"I think we petered out in the middle of the season," Epley said of last season. "We just expended so much energy getting those six wins. It was very emotional, and we kind of burnt out in some ways, emotionally and mentally.
"We've given them more time off (this year). Practices have been shorter. Focus more on skill work. We haven't been conditioning them this spring, which has been a leap of faith for us. I think the team is fresher. I think we're also fueled by what happened last year and a determination that we just want to do better."
No. 12 South Carolina capped the regular season with a huge win at No. 13 Kentucky that proved to be the difference between a fourth seed and double bye and fifth seed and single bye in the conference tournament.
The Gamecocks will battle the Wildcats again on Friday evening with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
"I think this tournament is really an opportunity to try and break through and show everyone that we are actually a very good team and watch out, NCAA Tournament," Epley said.
There has been consistent production all over for South Carolina, but the bottom part of the singles lineup has been particularly strong. Hadley Berg, who holds down the No. 5 singles spot, didn't lose a match until earlier this month against Vanderbilt, and Brigit Folland has been exceptional at the No. 6 singles spot.
When you can almost guarantee your team two points in any given match, it's a tremendous comfort for any coach.
"You just have to find two more points somewhere else," Epley said. "It's very, very important just because those have been consistent points."
The Gamecocks also have two outstanding freshmen who have quickly developed into terrific players. Mia Horvit, a native of Florida, wasted no time at all in claiming the No. 1 singles spot, something that is unheard of for a first-year player.
"We certainly didn't have that outlook for Mia," Epley said. "We thought three, maybe four at best. But she has proven herself. She's surprisingly mature for a freshman. She has a big game, and she's come up with a quite of bit of production during the year."
Silvia Chinellato is the other freshman, and has played well at No. 4 singles. She clinched the deciding point for South Carolina in its huge win at Kentucky to close the regular season.
After last year's team sputtered out at the end of the season, the Gamecocks have a chance to make sure things go differently this time around. A good performance in the SEC tournament this weekend will assure that South Carolina hosts the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
The next step now is to make sure the season ends at the NCAA Championships.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**