2015 USC Men's Volleyball Preview|
Jan. 5, 2015
After a two-year absence, the USC men's volleyball team is ready to make a run at returning to the NCAA Championships. In fact, the 2015 version of the Trojans appears similar in makeup to the 2012 squad that made USC's last NCAA trip, which was the third in a four-year span for a program that claims four NCAA titles and 14 NCAA Final Four appearances in its history.
"This team is very similar to our 2012 team that won the MPSF regular season title and advanced to the NCAA Championship match," said ninth-year head coach Bill Ferguson. "We have very similar personnel with very similar abilities."
Four starters return from 2014, including one of the world's top setters and two Freshmen All-Americans. There also is experience and depth at every position. In all, 12 players on USC's 20-man 2015 roster got into matches last season, including 10 who saw significant playing time.
"This team has the best culture and chemistry of any team I've had here," said Ferguson, a two-time AVCA National Coach of the Year who has guided USC to three trips to the NCAA Championships, two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season crowns and an MPSF tourney title while going 11-6 against crosstown rival UCLA. "It is the tightest-knit team I've had, the most self-motivated, the most self-aware and the most selfless. The players understand their individual roles better than any group I've ever had.
"This also is the best serving team I've had at USC. We have the ability to score points from the service line with just about everyone in the lineup. This team will have a faster offense than we've had in recent years. It also has the ability to defend, dig and transition well."
Last year, USC nearly tripled its 2013 win total by going 16-11 overall (14-10 in the MPSF) and finished with a No. 10 national ranking. The Trojans posted wins over eventual NCAA champion Loyola Chicago and five other Top 8-ranked squads.
USC must replace four-year starters at opposite hitter (Tanner Jansen) and libero (2014 All-American second teamer Henry Cassiday), as well as versatile Maddison McKibbin, who had 50 career starts at 3 positions, including on the outside last season.
The Trojans will revolve around 6-6 senior setter Micah Christenson, a three-year starter who was a 2014 All-American first teamer when he won the Lloy Ball Award (as the nation's top collegiate setter) and then started for the U.S. National Team that won the FIVB World League gold medal. Last season, he led the nation in assists average (11.62), and also led USC in assists (1,046) and aces (25) and was second in digs (210) and blocks (51).
"Micah has the potential to be one of the best setters ever at USC, a school that has produced some of the game's greatest setters," said Ferguson. "He also is one of the best servers and defenders on our team. He runs our team in practice and matches. He gained exceptional experience this past summer competing at the highest level and proved to be among the best setters in the world."
"Michael has established himself as our setter in waiting," said Ferguson. "He would start for most teams in our league. He also has a tremendous serve and is a good blocking presence at the net. Jack improved immensely in the fall. On any other team in the league, he would play a significant role."
USC is deep and experienced at middle blocker. Robert Feathers, a 6-8 senior who started in 2012 (when he was the National Blocker of the Year) and in 2013 then was a backup last season, appears ready to resume a starting role. A career .380 hitter with 248 blocks, he hit a USC rally scoring era record .453 last year. Sophomore Andy Benesh, at 6-8, was a 2014 Freshman All-American first team honoree while starting all season. He led USC's regulars in hitting percentage (.443) and blocks (91) while also getting 190 kills and 60 digs. He played with the U.S. Junior National Team this past summer.
"Robert had the best off-season of any player I've ever coached," said Ferguson. "He is ready to have a season similar to his dominating freshman year. He's healthy and in the best shape of his career. His hard work this summer is paying off. Andy is a fierce competitor and one of the best all-around middle blockers in the league. He can affect a match as an attacker and as a blocker. He had a fantastic freshman year."
Also competing for time in the middle are 6-8 senior Chris Lischke, who had 16 starts last year, and juniors Tommy Leonard, who at 6-8 has 11 career starts (including nine last season), and 6-6 Tyler Cundiff, who has yet to play at USC.
"Chris is our best blocker," said Ferguson. "He once again will play a key role on our team as a leader off the court and as a player on the court. He should see significant action. Tommy gives us the best depth of any middle blocking corps in the country. He'd start on many teams. He's a tremendous attacker and he continues to improve as a blocker. Tyler has improved immensely and is healthy for the first time in a year. He will continue to be a solid contributor for us on and off the court."
Cristian Rivera, a 6-6 senior with 26 career starts at opposite hitter and outside hitter, has emerged as the likely starter at opposite. He had seven starts there in 2014 and posted 89 kills, 37 digs and 14 blocks overall. Junior Josh Kirchner, at 6-6, has switched from middle blocker (where he has 13 career starts) to opposite hitter and has taken well to the move.
Jon Rivera, a 6-5 freshman who like Cristian Rivera hails from Puerto Rico (they are not related), is also in the conversation at opposite hitter. He led his Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola High School team to a pair of national championships and was his league's Player of the Year as a senior. He also played for the Puerto Rico Junior National Team and trained with the country's National Team.
"Cristian had a phenomenal off-season," said Ferguson. "He matured greatly. He is a smart attacker and a solid blocking presence on the right side. He also gives us the ability to pass with four players when we are facing a team with tough servers. Josh is making the transition from the middle to playing opposite and he is doing very well. He will compete for playing time. He is a very effective blocker and is one of our better servers.
"Jon has a fantastic arm and a great work ethic. He has quickly gotten into the mix at opposite hitter and he has the potential to compete for playing time."
Outside hitter Lucas Yoder, a 6-4 sophomore, returns after being named the National and MPSF Freshman of the Year in 2014 when he had a team-best 394 kills while hitting .303, along with 111 digs, 33 blocks and 13 aces. He was sixth nationally in kills average last year (4.02). But Ferguson said the starting outside jobs are up in the air.
"After coming off a big freshman year, Lucas got off to a slow start in the fall and is competing to get back in the mix," said Ferguson. "He is the best natural passer on our team and has the best court vision of any hitter."
Among those challenging to start on the outside are 6-4 junior Alex Slaught and 6-3 soph Christopher Orenic. Slaught has 27 career starts, including the first 10 matches last year, while Orenic saw backup action in 14 matches last spring.
"Alex had a fantastic fall," said Ferguson. "He has emerged as one of our strongest players. He is a reliable attacker and solid passer. Christopher has one of the best arms on our team. He also is the best end blocker and best server of our outside hitters. He has the ability to start."
There also is a trio of freshmen battling for time at outside hitter: 6-4 Jack Wyett of Laguna Beach (Calif.) High, who was a 2014 All-CIF Division II first team pick, 6-2 Larry Tuileta of Honolulu's (Hi.) Punahou School, where he was a three-time All-State outside hitter in volleyball (he was the National High School Player of the Year in 2014) and quarterback in football, and 6-6 Conor Inlow of Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach (Calif.). All three made the Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 list. Tuileta spent this past fall as a reserve quarterback on the Trojan football team.
"Jack was our team's most pleasant surprise of the fall," said Ferguson. "He established himself as an effective outside hitter. He is a solid player in every facet of the position. If Larry can make the transition from college football to college volleyball like he did at the high school level, then he'll have a chance to be a significant contributor to this team. He is an outstanding passer and defender, and he has great range and vision as an attacker. Conor has improved a ton. He'll focus on playing outside hitter this year, but he'll likely play other positions here in the future, as he can also play opposite and middle."
Junior Brooks Varni, at 6-2, will inherit the starting libero spot. He has appeared in 27 matches in his career, with nine starts. Backing Varni, and also available as defensive specialists, are 6-3 redshirt freshman Riley Mallon and 5-9 sophomore Vinnie Rios. Neither has played yet.
"Brooks plays the libero position better and understands the role of the position better than anyone I have coached," said Ferguson. "He is a tremendous competitor who helps drive our team in practice.
"Riley has shown tremendous improvement as he continues to transition from a high school outside hitter to a libero in college. He is one of the best natural passers on our team. We may use him as a back row passing sub. Pound for pound, Vinnie is the best athlete on our team. He is an animal in the back court digging balls, and he continues to improve as a passer and playing the libero position. I expect him to compete for a role on this team."
If all these players come together like Ferguson thinks they will, don't be surprised if the 2015 Trojans end up in a familiar place, the NCAA Championships.