One weekend last November helped change the outlook for this season’s USC Aiken volleyball team.


After losing the last four matches of the regular season, the Pacers came into the Peach Belt Conference Tournament as the No. 6 seed and were set to face host Francis Marion in the opening round. They won the last two games of that match to knock off the Patriots 3-2 and then won three straight games to bounce second-seeded Flagler 3-1.


Head coach Glenn Cox’s squad went down in three games against top-seeded Armstrong in the title match, but Cox said that the strong finish allowed his team to see what it was capable of when healthy.


“They’re going into this season with a lot of confidence,” he said.


The run was particularly beneficial because of the makeup of the team. The 2013 team had just two seniors, meaning the momentum was able to carry over through a solid spring into this season.


“It was more of a mental breakthrough than it was a physical breakthrough,” he said.


The team has also reached something of a physical breakthrough, though, thanks to an increase in focus on fitness by several of the players. One such player was junior outside hitter Ashley Diedrich. The 2012 PBC co-Freshman of the Year had 200 kills a year ago but spent the summer training with boyfriend Daniel Debose in an effort to improve her skills at the net.


“She worked out this summer like you wouldn’t believe,” Cox said. “She’s flying.”


Diedrich, listed at 5-foot-11, can now reach 10 feet or higher, which is well above the volleyball net. She said having a training partner to help push her to her goals helped tremendously.


“I just pushed myself a lot harder,” she said. “I wanted it more.”


Cox said that the extra inches on Diedrich’s vertical leap will be an asset offensively.


“There are not many kids in our league that can reach 10 feet or above 10 feet,” he said. “She’s going to be hard to defend.”


She isn’t alone in the attack up front. Sophomore outside hitter Taylor Stratton actually led the team in kills as a freshman with 268, and the middle combination of junior Aly Johnson and senior Hannah Tierney had 176 and 161, respectively.


Johnson and Tierney are part of a quartet of potential middles with Aiken High grad Jennifer Law and freshman Alicia Hines. The group ranges from the 5-foot-9 Law to Tierney, who is listed at 6 feet, and Cox said that length in the middle of the front row will help.


“We’re four-deep in the middle,” he said. “Our size will compete more in the league.”


Depth is something of a theme for the Pacers this year. Junior Aiken High grad Monica Cardona is one of three players vying for time as a defensive specialist or libero, along with sophomores Danielle Mercer and Katie Toman.


Toman had 325 digs last season, Mercer had 313 and Cardona added 248.


“We have three of the best defensive players in the league,” Cox said.


There are also three setters in play, as sophomore Amanda Bologna – who led the team with 766 assists last season – and senior Sheila Walsh – who added 435 – are joined by freshman South Aiken product Lauren Howard. Cox said Howard has reached out to Walsh for help learning the Pacers’ offensive plan, and it has paid off as Howard is learning the offense quickly.


“That’s one of my senior leaders,” Cox said of Walsh. “She comes in and works with a freshman that’s trying to steal her spot.”


Overall, the depth will help in multiple ways, Cox said. He expects that his team will remain more competitive throughout the season and also will be less predictable.


“It’ll allow us to sustain a high level of play, even with a few nagging injuries,” he said. “We can throw a lot of different looks at people.”


USCA will open its season on Friday at the Newberry Invitational against Belmont Abbey at noon and Wingate at 6 p.m. before playing host Newberry and King on Saturday. The following weekend, the Pacers will host Limestone, Anderson, Palm Beach Atlantic and Newberry in the USC Aiken Invitational, which will help prepare them for PBC play that begins on Sept. 19 at Francis Marion.


The Pacers, picked to finish third this season, will be a contender in the league, according to Cox.


“We’ll be there,” he said. “I feel confident we’ll be there.”


Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.


At a glance


WHAT: USC Aiken Volleyball


Newberry Invitational


at Newberry College


Friday


• Noon – vs. Belmont Abbey


• 6 p.m. – vs. Wingate


Saturday


• 1 p.m. – at Newberry


• 7 p.m. – vs. King


USC Aiken Invitational


at USCA Convocation Center


Sept. 12


• 3 p.m. – vs. Limestone


• 7 p.m. – vs. Anderson


Sept. 13


• Noon – vs. Palm Beach Atlantic


• 4 p.m. – vs. Newberry


ROSTER


Number Name Position Year Height Hometown/Previous School


1 Amanda Bologna S So. 5-7 Virginia Beach, Va. / Kellam H.S.


11 Monica Cardona L Jr. 5-5 Aiken, S.C. / Aiken H.S.


22 Ashley Diedrich OH Jr. 5-11 Orlando, Fla. / Dr. Phillips H.S.


15 Brittany Faulkner OH/RS r-Fr. 5-9 Loganville, Ga. / Walnut Grove H.S.


18 Julia Forster OH Fr. 6-0 Lake Grove, N.Y. / St. Anthony’s H.S.


8 Alicia Hines MB Fr. 5-11 Roswell, Ga. / Roswell H.S.


4 Shawn Hotson OH/DS So. 5-9 Milwaukee, Wis. / Greendale H.S.


9 Lauren Howard S Fr. 5-8 Aiken, S.C. / South Aiken H.S.


5 Aly Johnson M Jr. 5-11 Apple Valley, Minn. / Apple Valley H.S.


7 Jennifer Law MB So. 5-9 Aiken, S.C. / Aiken H.S.


21 Ashley Lind MB/OH So. 5-11 Suffolk, Va. / Grafton H.S.


6 Danielle Mercer DS/L So. 5-5 Columbus, Ohio / Bishop Ready H.S.


3 Taylor Stratton OH So. 5-10 Chesapeake, Va. / Ocean Lakes H.S.


20 Hannah Tierney M Sr. 6-0 Winchester, Va. / James Wood H.S.


88 Katie Toman DS/L So. 5-3 Keenesburg, Colo. / Weld Central H.S.


12 Sheila Walsh S Sr. 5-8 Fort Mill, S.C. / Nation Ford H.S.


Head Coach: Glenn Cox (Seventh Season)


Assistant Coach: Chip Herring


FULL SCHEDULE


September


Fri. 5 vs. Belmont Abbey @ Newberry, S.C. 12 p.m.


vs. Wingate @ Newberry, S.C. 6 p.m.


Sat. 6 at Newberry 1 p.m.


vs. King (Tenn.) @ Newberry, S.C. 7 p.m.


Fri. 12 Limestone 3 p.m.


Anderson (S.C.) 7 p.m.


Sat. 13 Palm Beach Atl. 12 p.m.


Newberry 4 p.m.


Tue. 16 at Johnson C. Smith 6 p.m.


Fri. 19 at Francis Marion * 7 p.m.


Sat. 20 at UNC Pembroke * ^ 2 p.m.


Wed. 24 at Lander * ^ 7 p.m.


Fri. 26 GRU Augusta * ^ 7 p.m.


Sat. 27 Georgia College * ^ 2 p.m.


October


Fri. 3 at Columbus St. * ^ 7 p.m.


Sat. 4 at Montevallo * 3 p.m.


Wed. 8 Francis Marion * 7 p.m.


Fri. 10 at Armstrong State * ^ 7 p.m.


Sat. 11 at Flagler * ^ 2 p.m.


Tue. 14 Johnson C. Smith 7 p.m.


Fri. 17 UNC Pembroke * ^ 7 p.m.


Fri. 24 at Georgia College * ^ 7 p.m.


Sat. 25 at GRU Augusta * ^ 1 p.m.


GRU Augusta Tri-Match


vs. Claflin @ Augusta, Ga. 3 p.m.


Fri. 31 Montevallo * ^ 7 p.m.


November


Sat. 1 Columbus St. * ^ 2 p.m.


Senior Day


Tue. 4 Lander * ^ 7 p.m.


Thu. 6 Armstrong State * ^ 7 p.m.


Fri. 7 Flagler * ^ 7 p.m.