Talented, experienced Pacers set sights on special season

·4 min read

Aug. 27—A few key points were clearly on display on the volleyball court Saturday afternoon at the USC Aiken Invitational.

The Pacers have talent. They have depth. They have versatility. They have experience.

They also know matches aren't won on paper.

It's early in the season but a good indicator of what this group can do, as the Pacers shrugged off a sluggish start for a 25-27, 25-21, 25-12, 25-13 victory to move to 3-0 before Saturday night's late match against Lenoir-Rhyne.

"It's a good start," Pacers head coach Glenn Cox said. "Obviously if you can come out with three wins and start the season off with good region competition and get tested a little bit and see how they respond to it, it was good to see."

The Pacers had their misfires early, and as those began to increase so, too, did Converse's confidence. The Pacers were reeling after the first set, then were in danger of going down 2-0 in the match when Converse led 20-18.

Then the Pacers flipped that switch, outscoring Converse 7-1 to finish the set and then blitzing the Valkyries over the final two to finish off the match. During that stretch, USCA outscored Converse 57-26.

"We definitely are showing some sparks of, like, 'Uh oh, this could be special this year,'" Cox said. "The diversity of our offense, we are not distributing the ball with 60-70% of the sets going to Alie Smith. We're mixing it up. We've got a lot more diversity. We added a lot more talent and depth in the middle this year. We've got a lot of depth in the middle. ... I went from having injuries last year and having only one true middle, and now I've got five that are battling it out."

USCA has had a lot of prolific defensive players over the last decade, if not longer, and junior Kari Mercer is the latest in that line. The reigning Peach Belt Conference Libero of the Year who also earned All-America recognition a year ago, Mercer wasted little time starting this season with a bang with a school-record 49 digs in Friday night's four-set win over Catawba.

"She's already broken (her sister) Danielle's record. She's on pace to break some pretty phenomenal defenders' records," Cox said. "I was picking on her last night in the interview afterward. They were praising her for beating Danielle's record. I said, 'You know, Danielle's got an Elite Eight and you don't have one yet.'

"So that's the goals I want for her. I know she's going to put up big numbers. We set up our defense and block to make sure the ball is going in her direction. When it does, she's usually there. We'll keep doing that, for sure. I definitely want to see her get to do some of the same things that big sister did. She's already got the numbers. Now I want to see her get some rings."

The single-match individual digs record fell Friday night, and the single-match team aces record followed the next time the Pacers took the court. Their 19 aces against Converse broke the old mark of 17, also set against the Valkyries in 2004.

The Pacers have plenty of key returning players from years past, and one that fans have longed to see back on the court is junior middle blocker Abbey Schad. She played in all 31 matches as a freshman in 2019 and showed signs of being an all-conference player for years to come, then missed the next two seasons due to two surgeries on the same knee.

Now she's back in the lineup at 100%, and Cox said she's playing with plenty of confidence rather than being tentative out of fear of another injury.

"It is so good to see, because she's such a talented, explosive athlete," he said. "We were doing some testing the other day, and she's faster than some of our baseball players are to first base. She's doing some really unbelievable stuff. What's nice is that she's back 100%, and then we've got a couple others that are giving her all she wants. Our competition in the middle in practice is just unbelievable. It's a knock-down, drag-out war every day in practice for them."

The added bonus for Schad and the other middles is having that depth — they're making one another better in practice, and in matches they're able to substitute to where no one's getting over-worked at the most physically demanding position on the floor.

Cox put it simply when he said the pieces are there for an exciting season — they've just got to play clean. They'll have their next opportunity to do that next weekend when they host the Pacer Invitational, with two matches Friday and two more Saturday.