Experience may be a rare commodity for the USC men's volleyball team in 1998. Talent, however, will be in abundance.
Pat Powers - a former USC All-American and Olympic gold medalist- enters his second season as head coach and welcomes nine freshmen to the program, six of whom earned notice on the prestigious Volleyball Fab 50 list. They join seven returners, including two full-time starters from a year ago.
"The freshmen are going to have to contribute right away," said Powers, who guided the Trojans to an overall record of 18-14 (Troy's first winning mark since 1994) and 9-10 for a fourth-place tie in the Pacific Division of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation in 1997.
"They're being forced into that position but I think they're good enough. We have some freshmen here who can do this right away. With them, I think we can be a better passing team and a better blocking team this year, but we might not have the firepower we had last year. The freshmen will be given a lot of responsibility. We'll see how we do."
The Trojans lost eight players from the 1997 team, most notably All-MPSF honorable mention selections Chris Guigliano and Eric Seiffert, who were seniors and graduated, and Gabe Gardner, who transferred.
But USC still boasts one of the top middle blockers in the country in 6-foot-10 senior Szilard Kovacs and one of the top setters in the nation in 6-foot-5 sophomore Donald Suxho. Both are All-American candidates and both are players who their younger teammates can watch and learn from.
"Szilard and Donald are important players and will need to be leaders on our team this season," said Powers, who is assisted by Bill Ferguson and Aaron Smith. "Szilard will be our go-to player. Donald, who is only a sophomore, keeps getting better and better."
Kovacs, a native of Hungary, led USC and was 15th nationally in hitting (.420) as a 1997 junior. He also led the Trojans with 105 blocks and had 258 kills. He will be starting for his fourth season and has led USC in hitting percentage in each of his first three years.
"We'll be using Szilard a lot because he's the best hitter we have on the court," Powers said. "He is one of the most dominant middle blockers in the country."
Suxho, who is from Albania, took over the setting duties immediately upon his arrival in 1997 and had a team-leading 1,585 assists and 220 digs. He ranked 11th in the nation in assist average (17.04) and set an NCAA single-match record with 129 assists against Ohio State. Suxho is the team captain in 1998.
"Donald might be the best setter in the conference," Powers said. "He is really leading the team in terms of blocking, defense, serving and setting. He runs the entire offense very well."
Three other returners have started at times in their USC careers: 6-foot-7 senior middle blocker Trent Brown, 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter Brad Callahan and 6-foot-5 junior middle blocker Omar Rawi. Callahan will miss the first part of the 1998 season while he recovers from ankle surgery.
"Trent is playing well and blocking well," Powers said. "He's a big, tall guy who will see a lot of playing time this year. Brad was playing really well before his injury. When he comes back, he'll give us more leadership and more court savvy. Omar is very athletic and has been getting better and better. He's strong in the middle and is quick."
Another senior, 5-foot-11 Bryant Edwards, might not be a starter but is an important player off the bench as a defensive specialist.
"Bryant is a great defensive specialist," Powers said. "He can anticipate where the ball will be going better than anyone else on the team."
The final returning player, 6-foot-5 sophomore outside hitter David Grimm, played in just two matches in 1997.
"David is one of our most improved players," Powers said. "He has come a long way from when he first stepped on the court as a freshman. He's passing well, blocking well and progresses daily."
With Callahan out for the early part of the season, freshmen will likely start at all three outside hitter positions. The leading candidates to start there are 6-foot-3 Craig Dennis, 6-foot-6 Eli Fairfield, 6-foot-4 Trevor Julian and 6-foot-2 Ryan Thurlow.
All four were named to the Volleyball Fab 50 team. Fairfield and Julian played on the 1997 USA Volleyball Youth National Team, which competed at a tournament in Italy.
Dennis was the 1997 Northwest Yosemite League MVP as a senior at Bullard High in Fresno, Calif. Fairfield earned 1997 All-CIF San Diego Section and All-Palomar League first team honors at La Costa (Calif.) Canyon High. Julian was an All-CIF Southern Section and L.A. Daily News All-Valley first teamer at Harvard-Westlake High in North Hollywood, Calif. Thurlow was named All-CIF Southern Section first team, Orange County Register All-Orange County first team and South Coast League MVP at Capistrano Valley High in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Tony Knopp, who prepped at Monta Vista High in Cupertino, Calif., and is 6-foot-7, could see a lot of playing time at middle blocker.
The other freshmen, who could see varying amounts of playing time, are: 6-foot-3 setter Caleb Anderson from Claremont (Calif.) High; 6-foot-4 outside hitter/middle blocker Conor Frickman from La Costa (Calif.) Canyon High; 6-foot-5 middle blocker Ryan Hill from Crespi High in Encino, Calif.; and 6-foot-4 outside hitter Blair Hoppe from Corona del Mar High in Newport Beach, Calif.
Frickman and Hoppe made the Volleyball Fab 50 team.
"We should be quite a bit better just by virtue of our recruiting class," Powers said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we'll make the playoffs. We can play with everyone in the league.
"I'm excited about this team. I think we're going to have some matches where we surprise some people."