2006 Men's Volleyball Outlook|
Jan. 10, 2006
There's no sugarcoating it. The USC men's volleyball program has been in a serious slump the past 4 years, finishing each season in 11th place in the 12-team Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
But the 2006 Trojans, despite their youth, plan on doing something about it.
"This year's team is on a mission," said fourth-year head coach Turhan Douglas. "They're not just playing for themselves. They're playing for this school's honor and for the great players from the championship teams who came before them. They know they're being watched by those players. They feel a sense of responsibility."
In 2005, USC, which had 4 starters sidelined by injuries for a portion of the season, went just 7-23 overall (3-19 in the MPSF). That's hardly tolerable for a program that has won 4 NCAA titles while finishing second six other times and third once.
Three starters (and 10 lettermen) return from last year, but there are only 4 upperclassmen on the 19-man roster.
"We're real young," Douglas acknowledged, "but we're very talented and real hungry. Many of our younger players came from championship backgrounds at the high school and club level. I think we'll upset a lot of teams this year.
"We have the right attitude, we have the proper work ethic and we have the leaders necessary to bring us out of the slump we've been in."
Douglas also feels his team will benefit from the return of noted club coach Bill Ferguson to the staff after a 7-year absence, as well as the elevation of assistant coach Brandon Crisp to full-time status and the hiring of former collegiate Libero of the Year and ex-U.S. National Team player Ryan Stuntz as a volunteer assistant.
USC will be led by fourth-year starting outside hitter Joao Grangeiro. The 6-0 senior co-captain from Brazil, known for his savvy hitting, pinpoint passing and deadly jump serving, led Troy last season in kills (319), digs (244) and aces (44), plus he added 48 blocks. Also able to play libero, he made the 2005 All-MPSF honorable mention squad (he was a second teamer in 2003). He has started all 90 matches in his career, posting 788 kills, 778 digs, 115 blocks and 94 aces.
"Originally we wanted to play Joao this year at libero, where he'd be the best in the country," said Douglas. "But his serve is too much of an asset to keep him out of an outside hitting spot. He is playing really well, he's a smart, powerful hitter, he'll pass from most rotations and he's a real team leader."
Grangeiro will be joined on the outside by 2005 part-time starter Juan Figueroa, a springy 6-1 sophomore. The Puerto Rico native started 13 times there last season and had 195 kills, 81 digs and 21 blocks. But he missed much of the last third of the season with an elbow injury.
"Juan is one of the top young outside hitters in the country," said Douglas. "He's an explosive jumper and that helps him attack fast. We have high hopes for him in 2006."
Directing USC's attack will be the country's top young setter, 6-4 sophomore co-captain Jimmy Killian. He had a team-best 980 assists, along with 82 digs, 56 blocks and 17 aces, as the starter in 2005.
"Jimmy is one of the nation's top setters," said Douglas. "He has done an excellent job of leading us from the day he got here. He worked out in the off-season with the football team and is now a bigger, stronger, faster, more flexible and more physical player."
A pair of experienced 6-8 players on the rebound likely will start at middle blocker: sophomore Andrew Vernon and senior Jeff Bailey. Vernon, who started all of 2005 as a first-year freshman, will be slowed early in 2006 while recovering from surgery this past fall on both kneecaps. He led USC in hitting percentage (.421) and blocks (98) last spring, and also had 249 kills, 28 digs and 13 aces. Bailey, a 2004 starter, redshirted last spring to concentrate on his academics. He hit .295 with 199 kills and 64 blocks in 2004.
"There's no doubt Andrew is the most physical middle blocker in the nation and he could be an All-American," said Douglas. "When he gets back to 100% after the surgery on his knees, he'll take us to a whole other level. And it's nice to have Jeff back this year. He is our best blocker. His experience will help our young team."
For the second year in a row, USC landed the nation's No. 1 recruit. After getting Killian last season, the Trojans got his prep teammate, lefthanded 6-7 freshman C.J. Schellenberg, who will start at opposite hitter in 2006. He was the national Player of the Year in 2005 out of 3-time CIF Division I titlist Loyola High in Los Angeles (Calif.), and also was a member of the 2004 U.S. Junior National Team and 2003 U.S. Boys' Youth National Team. He was on 3 gold medal teams at the Junior Olympics.
"C.J. will help us in a big way," said Douglas. "We haven't had a true opposite hitter at USC since All-American Brook Billings (1999-2002). His size and being a lefty are assets, as is his championship experience."
Another true freshman, 6-2 Luke Morris of Laguna Beach (Calif.) High, likely will be USC's starting libero. He was an All-CIF Division II first teamer in 2004 and 2005.
"Luke is the best freshman libero in the country," said Douglas. "He'll be a key player for us."
Five other players will be available at outside hitter: sophomores Jake Lewis, Matt Anderson and James Wilkes, who are all 6-5, and first-year freshmen Matt Pavlovich and Chris Ceballos. Lewis saw action at opposite hitter in 7 matches (starting 3) last spring, while Anderson played briefly in 1 match in 2005 (a broken toe slowed him in this fall's practices). Wilkes, the son of the ex-UCLA and NBA basketballer of the same name, transferred to USC this season from Lewis, where he appeared in 17 matches (starting 6) last year and posted 66 kills (hitting .331), 14 blocks, 13 digs and 11 aces. The 6-4 Pavlovich was a 2005 All-CIF Division I third teamer at Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.). The 5-11 Ceballos, the cousin of former NBA player Cedric Ceballos, made the 2005 All-CIF Division V first team at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey (Calif.).
"Jake is one of our most gifted athletes," said Douglas. "He is extremely versatile, can play many positions and is one of our better blocking outside hitters. He'll see the court this year. By mid-season, Anderson has a real chance to see time. He has improved greatly from last year. James was a nice gift out of nowhere. He's a really, really heavy hitter. Over time, he's going to have an impact for us. Pavlovich is surprisingly strong for a freshman. He brings a lot of size and athleticism to our team. He'll fight for playing time. Chris is a developing player with a lot of raw talent. He comes from a good athletic background."
A trio of setters will back up Killian. Junior 6-0 co-captain Gio Altamura has played in 24 career matches (starting 4), 6-3 sophomore Andrew Biernat sat out the 2005 season after redshirting in 2004 and 6-2 true freshman Hunter Haley, the son of USC women's head coach Mick Haley, comes aboard from prep powerhouse Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach (Calif.).
"Gio has really stepped up and taken a leadership role on this team," said Douglas. "Everyone respects him. It's great to have a player with his talent as our backup setter. Andrew is very athletic and puts up a big block. He challenges our other setters each day in practice. Hunter has shown a lot of improvement in the pre-season. He has a great volleyball background. He could see some action this year and his future is bright."
Pushing for playing time at middle blocker will be 6-7 junior Matt Mosko, 6-6 sophomore Chris Jones and 6-5 redshirt freshman Sean O'Connor. Mosko moves back to his original position after spending 2005 at opposite hitter, where he started the season's first 7 matches (he started 6 times in the middle in 2004). Overall last year, he had 109 kills, 27 digs and 16 blocks while appearing in 22 matches. Jones saw brief time in 1 match last spring. O'Connor was switched to the middle this year after being an outside hitter in 2005.
"Matt is so athletic that he adjusted quickly after being switched back to the middle," said Douglas. "He's a perfectionist and is always looking to improve, and that's very special to me. Chris works extremely hard and has progressed more than anyone in our program. He is one of our best blockers. He has an opportunity to play some this year and his future is promising. Sean is coming along amazingly fast after being moved to middle blocker. He's working hard and has a chance to see some playing time."
USC's only backup opposite hitter will be 6-4, first-year freshman B.J. Takushi, a 2-time All-State honorable mention pick out of Iolani High in Honolulu (Hi.).
"B.J. really has been a surprise as he has stepped up his game," said Douglas. "He is very competitive and prides himself on always being first in anything we do. Down the line as he develops, he will help us."