2012 USC Men's Volleyball Season Outlook
Jan. 3, 2012
If the USC men's volleyball team is left home when the 2012 NCAA Championship teams are announced, that would be a good thing.
How so? Well, USC is hosting the NCAA tourney at the Galen Center.
But getting to the NCAA Final Four, where the Trojans have landed 2 of the past 3 years, will be a challenge for USC this season.
The 2012 Trojans are a young squad, as only 7 of 16 players who saw action in 2011 return, including just 3 starters. Three-quarters of USC's 20-man roster are underclassmen, including 8 true freshmen from a highly-regarded recruiting class. There are only 2 seniors among the 5 upperclassmen.
"Despite what it might appear, we would like to think of it as more of a case of reloading than rebuilding this year," said sixth-year USC head coach Bill Ferguson, the 2011 MPSF Coach of the Year after winning National Coach of the Year notice in 2009. "We have every reason to believe we can be among the teams playing in the Galen Center in early May."
USC lost 4 impressive starters (and 9 lettermen) from last year's dominant squad that posted a 23-4 overall mark (its most wins since 1999) and won the program's first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season title since 1999 by going 20-2 (its most league victories since 1986). The 2011 Trojans were ranked No. 1 nationally the entire season until finishing third in the final poll after falling in the NCAA semifinals. Along the way, USC won 12 consecutive matches (its longest streak since 1990-91), 17 straight home matches (its most since 1999-2001) and 11 MPSF matches in a row (its most since 1991-92). Thirteen of USC's wins were 3-0 sweeps, while 3 of its 4 losses came in 5 sets. The 2011 Trojans were an offensive juggernaut, as they led the nation in kills (14.16), digs (9.76) and assists (13.35) and their .351 hitting percentage was a school rally scoring era record.
--2011 National and MPSF Player of the Year opposite hitter Murphy Troy, a 2-time All-American first teamer. In his 4 years as a starter, he hit .302 while setting USC rally scoring era records for kills (1,902), aces (143), matches with double figure kills (101) and matches with 20-plus kills (32). Last season, he led the Trojans in kills (376) and aces (38).
--2011 All-American first team setter Riley McKibbin, a 3-year starter who last spring had a team-best 1,187 assists (his 12.24 assists average was second nationally) and was second on the squad in digs (185).
--Outside hitter Tri Bourne, a 2011 All-American third teamer while hitting .326 with 245 kills. He had 60 career starts.
--Four-year starting middle blocker Austin Zahn, whose .411 career hitting percentage set a USC rally scoring era record. In 2011, he hit .391 with 168 kills and 87 blocks.
"No doubt we'll miss those four great players, but we return a ton of experience in some very important spots," said Ferguson, who guides a Trojan program that has won four NCAA titles and finished second seven times and third twice. "There also is a group of veterans who might not have much starting background, but they have been in the gym these past years competing with some great players and that has raised their level of play. And the freshmen who will have an impact this year all have significant experience on the club and international level, and it is the most mature new group we've had here. Our overall team chemistry is strong, as the players have bonded more so than any of my teams.
"So, I think we will be a team that will continue to grow throughout the season. We may stub our toes early and lose some matches we shouldn't, but we may also win some matches we shouldn't. We will win a majority of our matches and, by the end of the season, be in the hunt."
In 2012, USC will be led by powerful 6-6 senior outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, one of the nation's most dynamic players. The 2-time All-American second teamer has recorded 1,224 kills, 533 digs, 212 blocks and 105 aces in his 3-year starting career. Last season, he was second on the Trojans in kills (350) and aces (36), tied for third in blocks (64) and was fourth in digs (142) while hitting .317. He spent this past summer competing internationally (at the Pan American Games with the U.S. Men's National Team) and on the beach (at the World University Games).
"Tony is poised to have his best season ever," said Ferguson. "He is definitely a National Player of the Year candidate. The experience he gained at the Pan Am Games this fall has led to huge improvements in his game. As our go-to guy, he'll be better in his role this year than he has been in the past when there was more of an even distribution with our offense."
Joining Ciarelli as a co-captain in 2012 is USC's only other senior, 6-7 middle blocker Steven Shandrick. As a starter last spring, he led the Trojans in blocks (104) and topped USC's regulars in hitting percentage (.500) while getting 169 kills, 30 digs and 12 aces.
"We have big expectations for Steven this year," said Ferguson. "He is our rock. He is one of the best middle blockers in the MPSF and is a likely All-American."
USC's third returning starter is 6-3 sophomore libero Henry Cassiday. He was the team's leader in digs (257) while tying for third nationally in dig average (2.62) and he had just 18 receptions errors on 579 attempts in 2011. He was an All-American third teamer last year and made the MPSF All-Freshman team. This past summer, he started for the U.S. Junior National Team that placed fourth at the 2011 FIVB Junior World Championship (claiming its highest finish ever).
"We're looking for Henry to build on his stellar freshman season," said Ferguson. "His experience last summer at the Junior World Championships helped him immensely. He's one of the best liberos in the country."
Looking to take over at opposite hitter are a pair of 6-5 players: junior Maddison McKibbin and sophomore Tanner Jansen. McKibbin, a tested lefty, has 18 career starts at 3 positions (opposite, outside and libero). Last year, he played on the outside, seeing action in 15 matches (with 5 starts, including the season's first 3 contests). Three of his relatives have played volleyball at USC, including older brother Riley. Jansen was impressive in the 3 matches he played last year (he hit .438 while starting twice).
"Maddison is a great team leader," said Ferguson. "He is battling for time at opposite and he could also play outside. He is our best end blocker and one of our best defensive players, and his attacking is improving every day. Tanner is one of our best servers and is a great attacker. His blocking and defense are improving daily."
Three other Trojans on the 2012 roster have notched playing time--albeit limited--in their careers. Jeff Carlson, a 6-3 junior, has appeared in 13 matches as a backup setter. An accomplished beach player (he teamed with Ciarelli at the World University Games last summer), he also will work at outside hitter this season. Junior Steven Mochalski, a 6-6 outside hitter, has seen brief action in 11 matches, while 6-3 soph setter Chris Trefzger has played in 5 matches (all in 2010) but redshirted last season.
"Jeff is one of our best all-around players, able to set or hit," said Ferguson. "After his play this fall, he has moved near the top of our list of starting outside hitters. Steven is coming off a very good fall and will compete for a starting job. He has a very workmanlike approach and should make an impact this year. Chris has shown significant improvement and will be our backup setter. He will have a much larger role for us this year."
Also returning are 3 young players who have yet to step on the court: sophomores J.B. Green, a 6-0 libero who also has played football at USC, and 6-2 setter Tyler Hornacek, and 6-5 redshirt freshman outside hitter Joey Booth. Then there is 6-3 redshirt freshman libero-outside hitter Paul Yoder, who played on USC's club volleyball squad last year. He is one of 6 Yoders to have played collegiate volleyball, including 4 at USC.
"J.B. is super competitive and pushed Henry all fall for the libero job," said Ferguson. "He is still getting back his feel for the game after a few years off playing football. Tyler has made great strides and has become a proficient setter. He leads by example in the gym and weightroom. Joey has improved considerably and is in the mix at outside hitter. His length and athletic ability really help him. Paul adds good depth to our roster. We're thrilled to have another Yoder in the Trojan program."
USC's 2012 starting lineup could include several members of its talented 8-player true freshman class.
Micah Christenson, a 6-5 setter from Kamehameha-Kapalama High in Honolulu (Hi.), is one of the most decorated players ever from Hawaii and could transition immediately into a starting job at USC. A 2-time prep All-American, he was the state's Player of the Year in both volleyball and basketball while leading his team to state titles in both sports. He started for the U.S. Youth National and Junior National teams the past 4 years, helping the Junior National squad to a best-ever fourth place at the 2011 FIVB Junior World Championship (joining Cassiday in the starting lineup).
"Micah had a fantastic fall and earned the opportunity to start," said Ferguson. "He brings a presence at the net and service line that we really need. He has a great future here."
A pair of 6-6 freshmen will join the mix at outside hitter: Cristian Rivera of Colegio San Jose in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and Austin Rysyk of Bellarmine Prep in San Jose (Calif.). Rivera, who guided his high school to a pair of Puerto Rican championships, has significant international experience while representing his country in the Pan American Cup, FIVB Junior World Championship and FIVB Youth World Championship this past summer (he was the final cut on Puerto Rico's 2011 World League roster). Rysyk, who is coming off summer knee surgery, led Bellarmine to a pair of CIF Central Coast Section Division I titles.
"Cristian is battling to start on the outside," said Ferguson. "He took some time off during the off-season to recover from his extensive playing time with Puerto Rico, so as he gets back into it he should be a factor for us. Austin will provide good depth at the outside spot. We're looking forward to seeing his progress as his knee gets stronger."
Three frosh middle blockers will look to earn a starting role: 6-8 Robert Feathers of Loyola High in Los Angeles (Calif.), 6-8 Chris Lischke of DeSmet High in St. Louis (Mo.) and 6-5 Ben Lam of Punahou High in Honolulu (Hi.). Feathers was an All-CIF Division I first teamer in 2011 and was a member of Loyola's 2009 and 2010 squads that won CIF Southern Section Division I titles (the 2009 team also captured the state crown and was ranked No. 1 nationally). He played on the 2009 U.S. Youth National team at the FIVB Youth World Championship and won gold medals at the 2008 and 2010 Junior Olympics. Lischke, who didn't play volleyball last year while at a junior college, helped DeSmet to the 2009 state Class 4 title. Lam was on Punahou's 2009 and 2010 state championship teams and was a 2-time All-State selection.
There's also 6-6 freshman middle blocker Tyler Cundiff of Iolani High in Honolulu (Hi.), who will redshirt in 2012. He made various All-State teams in 2010 and 2011.
"Robert has been a pleasant surprise and has a very bright future here," said Ferguson. "He had an unbelievable fall and could start in the middle. He's one of our hardest workers and has a phenomenal attitude. Chris is a high-character person and a great addition to our team. He is playing middle for the first time since his sophomore year of high school and will compete for time there. Ben gives us depth and a great change of pace as a quick hitter. Tyler is building a foundation for a promising future as he brings competitive depth to the gym while he redshirts this year."
Available at setter or opposite hitter is 6-2 freshman Robbie McKnight of Laguna Beach (Calif.) High, a 2-time All-CIF Division II first teamer and 2-time gold medalist at the Junior Olympics.
"Robbie has been solid at both setter and now at opposite hitter," said Ferguson. "He is building a nice base for the future."
With this mix of returners and newcomers, Ferguson and assistant coaches J.J. Riley, Jeff Nygaard and John Xie are hoping that the Trojans will be present at USC's Galen Center this May 3 and 5 not only because they will be hosting the NCAA Championship for the first time, but also because they will have earned a spot in the Final Four as one of the participants.