2014 USC Men's Volleyball Preview
Jan. 2, 2014
Bill Ferguson, in his eighth year as the USC men's volleyball coach, has had success previously using this blueprint: take a team with a mix of promising youngsters and experienced veterans and develop it through growing pains early in the year to a championship run at season's end.
It happened in 2012, as the Trojans started off 5-4 and then won 18 straight matches en route to their third NCAA Final Four appearance in a 4-year span.
Ferguson believes it could happen similarly in 2014.
This current Trojan team features a bevy of well-tested upperclassmen, including the best setter in North America on any level, plus some first-year freshmen who figure to have an immediate impact. While there isn't the big-bang offensive threat that the 2012 squad had, this 2014 squad is deeper, more balanced and, says Ferguson, "has more cohesion."
"This is a very similar team to the 2012 team," said Ferguson, a 2-time AVCA National Coach of the Year who has guided USC to 3 trips to the NCAA Championships, 2 MPSF regular season crowns and an MPSF tourney title while going 10-5 against crosstown rival UCLA. "We're better at blocking and serving than in 2012 and we have more balance and depth. I don't know how we'll start off, but I believe we'll finish strong."
Last year, a very green USC team certainly took its lumps as it rebuilt. There was just one senior on the 23-man roster that included 18 underclassmen, of whom 10 were freshmen. Six Trojans missed all or a significant part of the trying 2013 season because of injuries, including four who were starters. USC tried 14 different starting lineups in its 24 matches.
USC finished at 6-18 both overall and in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (for 11th place) last spring, the fewest overall wins for Troy since 2004. Three of the Trojans' wins, however, came against teams ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 nationally at the time. But USC's team hitting percentage, dig average and block average in 2013 were its lowest since 1984, 2002 and 2004, respectively. That certainly was not representative of a program that claims 4 NCAA titles and 14 NCAA Final Four appearances in its history.
"The best thing about this year is that it is not last year," said Ferguson. "We had lots of growing pains last season."
All 6 starters and the libero from last year return in 2014, but it is possible some will get pushed out of the lineup. Nearly three-fourths of USC's roster from last year returns, save for 6 backups. Nine of the 23 Trojans this season are upperclassmen.
"We have reliable players able to come off the bench at every position this year," said Ferguson, who is aided by assistant coaches Jeff Nygaard, Cameron Green and John Xie. "This team has more all-around skill and cohesion than any group I've had here. I believe we'll take a large step toward being back in the national conversation."
It all starts with the setter and in 6-6 junior Micah Christenson, the Trojans are led by perhaps the top young setter in the world. He spent this past fall as the starter for the U.S. Men's National Team at the NORCECA Continental Championships (the U.S. won for the first time since 2007) and the Grand Champions Cup. In 2013 in his second season starting for the Trojans, he led the team in assists (867), digs (179) and aces (41) and was second in blocks (59). He was sixth nationally in aces (0.45).
"Micah is the best setter not only in college but in North America," said Ferguson. "He runs our team so well, and he is also an exceptional blocker and server."
Cassiday figures to start for his fourth season at libero and he ranks among the best in the nation. He came on strong in 2013 after missing the first half of the season while recuperating from hip surgery. He finished with 108 digs, upping his career total to 564.
McKibbin and Jansen will compete to start at opposite hitter. McKibbin redshirted in 2013 after having surgery on a shin stress fracture. He is USC's most versatile player, with 31 career starts at 3 positions (opposite, outside and libero). He might also be used at outside hitter in 2014. Jansen, who has been USC's starting opposite the past 2 years, led the Trojans in kills last season with 241 and was 10th nationally in that category (3.77).
"Now that Henry is fully recovered from his hip surgery, I expect him to be back at the All-American caliber level he played at in 2012," said Ferguson. "Maddison likely will be on the floor in some capacity, as he is our best all-around skill player. He is one of our best blockers and defenders and he is coming into his own as an attacker. Tanner will be a big component to our success this year. He had his best fall ever. He gives us a ton of experience at the opposite position."
There are lots of other Trojans with key starting experience, but they will have to work hard to claim a spot in the 2014 lineup.
Junior 6-8 middle blocker Robert Feathers has started the past 2 years and has hit .365 in his career. Last spring, he led the Trojan regulars in hitting percentage (.391, seventh nationally) and blocks (76) and was third in kills (170). An ankle injury slowed him in fall practice.
"Robert brings great experience in the middle," said Ferguson. "He's in the mix to start and his presence gives us good options in the middle."
Outside hitters Alex Slaught, Joey Booth, Cristian Rivera and Austin Rysyk all posted starts in 2013. Slaught, a 6-4 sophomore, had 117 kills and 60 digs with 17 starts last year. The 6-6 junior Booth, who is coming off a knee tendon injury this past fall, had 156 kills and 59 digs with 13 starts in 2013. Rivera, another 6-6 junior, started 17 times last season at both outside and opposite hitter and he was second on the Trojans in kills (193) and aces (19) and third in digs (66). The 6-7 soph Rysyk had 8 starts in 2013, getting 90 kills. Rivera and Rysyk also might be used at opposite this season.
"All of these outsides will compete to start," said Ferguson. "Alex continues to improve daily and should build on the experience he received in 2013. Joey has a big arm and can score from the service line, so once he is fully recovered from his fall knee injury I expect him to contribute. Cristian got good experience last year at both outside and opposite hitter, and he likely will see action at both spots this year. Austin brings us point scoring from both the front row and the service line."
Looking to break into the mix at middle blocker are 6-8 junior Chris Lischke, 6-6 sophomore Josh Kirchner and 6-8 soph Tommy Leonard. Lischke has played in only 11 matches in his career (with 1 start), including 5 appearances in 2013. He and Christenson were voted team co-captains by their teammates. Kirchner started 13 matches last spring and hit .367. Leonard, who was slowed with a leg stress fracture this past fall, started 2 of the 3 late-season matches he played last year.
"Chris has had the largest jump in physical and technical improvement of any of our players," said Ferguson. "Not only is he a good blocker and attacker, but he's a very smart player and plays the game-within-the-game very well. Josh has the most upside of any of our players because he doesn't have as much volleyball in his background as the others, but he continues to improve and is building off the experience he received last year. He has the best scoring potential from the service line of our middles. Tommy also is looking to take advantage of the experience he received at the end of last year and provides us great depth in the middle."
Brooks Varni, a 6-1 sophomore, started USC's first 9 matches of 2013 at libero while Cassiday rehabilitated his hip injury.
"Brooks could start on any team in the country," said Ferguson. "He'll push Henry for playing time this year."
Three other returnees have yet to play in a regular season match: 6-6 sophomore Tyler Cundiff, along with redshirt freshmen Christopher Orenic, a 6-3 outside hitter, and 6-5 setter Michael Mullahey, who both were sidelined with nagging injuries last year.
"Tyler is a very intelligent player who gives us depth in the middle and he also is a great presence for us on and off the court," said Ferguson. "Christopher is healthy now and will compete for playing time. He has a steady all-around game and is a good server. Michael backs up Micah and got some good experience in the fall running our team while Micah was away competing for the U.S. He's a solid floor general, a good blocker and is becoming an effective server."
Leading USC's first-year freshman class is 6-7 Andy Benesh of Palos Verdes High in Palos Verdes Estates (Calif.), perhaps the nation's top prep middle blocker recruit last year. He was a 2013 High School All-American first teamer.
"Andy is the best attacking middle we have on the team and also could be our best blocking middle," said Ferguson. "He has improved every day since he has arrived here. He will remind Trojan fans of a young Tom Duke (USC's 1988 National Player of the Year), both in skill and body type."
Cousins Lucas Yoder and Jack Yoder, both freshmen out of San Clemente (Calif.) High who earned All-CIF Division 1 first team honors in 2013 and then helped their club team win a gold medal at the Junior Olympics, look to continue the legacy of the "First Family" of USC volleyball. Six Yoders now have graced Trojan rosters over the years, including their uncle, Bob, (a 1977 All-American who led USC to an NCAA title that year and then in 1988 as Troy's head coach), Lucas' late father, Dave (he played on 3 NCAA Final Four teams in the mid-1980s), their cousin, Erin (a member of a pair of recent Women of Troy NCAA Final Four squads), and Jack's brother, Paul Yoder, a 6-3 junior libero who likely will see action as a serving specialist for USC this year.
Lucas is a 6-4 outside hitter with a good shot to win a starting spot. He also is an outstanding beach player, having won a bronze medal at the 2013 FIVB U19 Beach World Championships. Jack, a 6-3 setter, is battling to be Christenson's backup.
"Lucas is the most skilled freshman I've ever had at USC and he likely will carry a significant load for us this year," said Ferguson. "Jack is a physical setter and has exceeded our expectations so far. Paul can help us from the service line and on defense, and he's one of our team's off-court leaders."
Riley Mallon, a 6-3 freshman from Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach (Calif.), will be a backup libero and outside hitter. He joined Benesh and Lucas and Jack Yoder on the 2013 Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 list.
"Riley is a young, developing player," said Ferguson. "I anticipate that during his career here, he will help us hugely with his ball control and volleyball knowledge."
Also new to the team this year, having joined at midyear, are 5-9 redshirt freshman defensive specialist-libero Vinnie Rios, a transfer from Pepperdine, and 6-2 first-year frosh defensive specialist Carlos Zambrano from New Trier High in Winnetka (Ill.).
"Vinnie is a very skilled passer and defender," said Ferguson. "Once he gets used to our system, I expect him to contribute. Carlos tried out for the team in the fall and made it. I look forward to his development."
Although the 2014 season is upon them, this group of Trojans--who will have five of their matches televised live on Pac-12 Networks--hopes that a repeat of 2012 is in store.