2007 USC MEN’S VOLLEYBALL OUTLOOK
New and old come together for exciting season
Then again, there are some stable “old” standards among this year’s Trojans: a corps of veteran starters, a tradition of excellence.
The hope is that this mix of new and old helps return Troy to national prominence.
New head coach Bill Ferguson expects nothing less from a program that has won 4 NCAA titles while finishing second six other times and third once.
Ferguson knows the Trojans’ history well, beginning in the late 1980s when he served as a linesman for many USC matches. He also was a Trojan assistant coach in the late 1990s and, after a stint as one of the nation’s most successful club coaches, again last year.
“I am keenly aware that this program was in 11 NCAA Final Fours in 15 years (1977-1991),” he said. “That’s the standard we’re setting for the future of this program, and it begins now.
“I don’t know exactly when we’ll be good, but we will be good. We’re bringing this program back.”
USC has a bit of a climb to restore its glory. For the past 5 years, the Trojans have failed to finish in the top 8 of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and qualify for the league tournament.
Although USC was just 11-15 overall last year (and 7-15 for ninth place in the MPSF), those were Troy’s best records and its best finish since 2001. Included were upsets over both of the 2006 NCAA Championship finalists (UCLA and Penn State).
A major boost to USC’s efforts of fielding an elite team is its new on-campus home, the state-of-the-art Galen Center. The 10,258-seat arenawith an adjacent practice court, locker room, weight room and coaches officesis a dramatic upgrade from the old, cramped North Gym.
“This is the best volleyball arena in the nation,” said Ferguson. “It was a long time in coming, but we now have a facility that will contribute greatly to our on-court success. It has already made an impact in our recruiting.”
USC also has some players capable of getting the program out of the doldrums. The Trojans return 5 starters and their libero (and 11 lettermen) from 2006.
Troy’s 22-man roster, its largest ever, also features a number of other returning players who can contribute, along with 7 newcomers (including 6 freshmen) who joined the Trojans to form one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
Co-captain Jimmy Killian, a 6-4 junior, is back at setter after starting the last 2 seasons. He has 2,280 career assists (1,300 in 2006). Last year, he was second on the Trojans in blocks (96) and aces (18) while adding 123 digs and 50 kills.
“Jimmy is ready for a breakout year, now that he has veteran players around him,” said Ferguson. “He’s one of the more physical setters in the country. He is experienced at all levels and has always been a winner. And he’s a fierce competitor.”
USC also has 3 capable setters besides Killian in 5-11 senior co-captain Gio Altamura, 6-2 sophomore Hunter Haley and 6-3 junior Andrew Biernat. Altamura has been in 43 matches in his career (with 4 starts), mostly as a serving specialist. Haley, the son of USC women’s volleyball head coach Mick Haley, and Biernat have yet to play in a regular-season match.
“We’re fortunate to have a player of Gio’s ability,” said Ferguson. “He understands what we do and what the other team does. He provides tremendous leadership and intensity. Hunter is a great competitor and lifts the level of competition in every practice. Andrew is a solid player who gives us good senior leadership and helps keep our practices very competitive.”
USC returns one of the nation’s most dynamic outside hitters in springy 6-2 junior Juan Figueroa, who started the last 2 years. He led USC in kills (477) in 2006 and was third in digs (172) and aces (15) while adding 67 blocks. He was seventh nationally in kill average (4.68) last season and twice was named the MPSF Player of the Week.
“Juan clearly is our go-to guy,” said Ferguson. “He’s one of the top players in college. He’s a huge jumper and one of the better back row hitters out there. He’ll have more passing responsibilities this year. He’s very popular among his teammates and has stepped up his leadership tremendously.”
Also back from last year’s lineup is one of the game’s top young opposite hitters, 6-7 sophomore lefty C.J. Schellenberg. He was impressive in 2006 while starting in his first year at USC, getting 271 kills (third on the team), 103 digs, 83 blocks and 14 aces.
“C.J. will be a huge part of what we do in 2007,” said Ferguson. “He’s one of the best young opposite hitters in the country and we’ll ask him to carry a big load. Of all of our players, he made the most improvement physically since last year.”
Jonathan Hackett, a 6-8 freshman, will compete with Schellenberg at opposite hitter. A 3-time (2004-06) All-County first team selection at Brighton High in Rochester (N.Y.), he was a member of the 2006 USA Men’s Junior National A2, 2005 Youth National A2 and 2004 Youth National A2 Training teams.
“Jonathan is a big, young player with unlimited potential,” said Ferguson. “He has a great arm and will give us valuable depth at the opposite position.”
Both starting middle blockers from 20066-8 junior Andrew Vernon and 6-7 senior Matt Moskoreturn and will compete with a talented newcomer for starting positions. Vernon, who appears to have recovered from lingering knee injuries after being in the starting rotation the 2 previous seasons, led the Trojans in hitting percentage (.403) in 2006 and was third in blocks (85). He also had 151 kills, 17 digs and 6 aces last year. Mosko moved back to the middle last year after spending 2005 as an opposite hitter and led USC in blocks (124) and was second in hitting percentage (.356) in 2006. He also had 179 kills, 14 aces and 29 digs last season.
“When he’s healthy, Andrew can be one of the best middle blockers in the country, a potential National Team-caliber type of athlete,” said Ferguson. “We expect him to be on the court a lot in 2007 and make an impact. And we anticipate Matt will be among the upper echelon of middle blockers in college. He hits a heavy ball and is one of our best servers. He has improved drastically from last year.”
Hunter Current, a 6-8 freshman who was a 2006 All-American honorable mention pick at Bellarmine Prep in San Jose (Calif.), will compete for playing time at middle blocker as well. He was a member of the 2006 USA Men’s Junior National team.
“After a great pre-season showing, Hunter will compete to start in the middle,” said Ferguson. “He has a great arm. His experience with the Junior National team has helped him a ton. I expect him to have a great career here.”
Chris Jones, a 6-6 junior, and untested 6-5 sophomore Sean O’Connor also are in the mix at middle blocker. Jones played in 17 matches last spring, with 10 starts (mostly late in the year). He had 43 kills, 35 blocks and 9 digs in 2006. O’Connor has yet to see action at USC.
“Chris is a smart player and a hard worker,” said Ferguson. “He received some key experience last year and that should benefit him this season. Sean provides a solid presence in practices. With continued improvement and hard work, he’ll be able to help us out.”
Matt Hillier, a gutty 6-3 sophomore middle blocker who was a teammate of Killian and Schellenberg at prep powerhouse Loyola High in Los Angeles (Calif.), transferred to USC from Pasadena (Calif.) City College. He and Killian shared All-CIF Division I Co-MVP honors in 2004 (an honor won by Schellenberg in 2005).
“We brought Matt here for his leadership qualities,” said Ferguson. “He brings great intensity and a winning attitude to our team. He’ll compete for playing time in the middle and even at opposite.”
Luke Morris, a 6-2 sophomore, returns as Troy’s libero after doing a steady job in his first season at USC in 2006. He had 219 digs with just 39 reception errors in 1,182 attempts last spring and, during one 4-match streak, he went 157 reception attempts without an error.
“I really believe Luke is one of the best liberos in the country,” said Ferguson. “He has a great feel for the ball, passes well with his arms and has very good instincts.”
Also competing at libero are 5-6 freshman Troy Tokuhama and 5-10 junior Tim Kraics. Tokuhama was an All-State second teamer as a senior last season at Iolani High in Honolulu (Hi.). Kraics did not see any action last year after serving as the team’s student manager in 2005.
“Troy has great ball control and comes from a long line of outstanding liberos from his high school,” said Ferguson. “I expect him to push for playing time every day. Tim’s work ethic and positive attitude will help us out immensely. He’s been around our program for a while and knows what we expect.”
Several players will compete for the open outside hitter job, with 6-5 junior Matt Anderson in the lead. Matt Pavlovich, a 6-4 sophomore, is also fighting for the job. Anderson has appeared in only 11 matches in his career, primarily as a serving specialist, but he caught the coaches’ attention with his play during fall drills. Pavlovich saw action in 7 matches as a freshman last year, even starting the season’s first 2 matches.
“Matt Anderson had a huge pre-season and is in the lead to start,” said Ferguson. “He’s one of our more physical players and one of our best servers. Matt Pavolovich has the best physical attributes of any of our outside hitters. He is young, but gained valuable experience last year. I expect him to be in the thick of the battle for a starting role.”
A pair of freshmen who were prep teammates at 2006 CIF Division I runner-up Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach (Calif.), 6-4 Joey Dykstra and 6-3 Chris Roche, also will battle for the opening at outside hitter. Dykstra, a 2006 All-American first team honoree, was a 2-time (2005-06) All-CIF Division I first teamer. He also is one of the planet’s top young beach volleyball players, taking silver medals at the 2005 Junior World U19, 2005 AAU Boys Junior U19 and 2006 U.S. Junior Olympics U20 Beach Championships. Roche started in the middle for the Seahawks last season.
“Both Joey and Chris will compete for a starting spot on the outside,” said Ferguson. “Joey is a very solid blocker and steady passer, and his hitting improves every day. Chris is a very good all-around player. He has a great serve and could help us out in that area right away.”
Then there’s 6-5 freshman outside hitter Brendan Skinner. He won 2006 All-CIF Division IV first team honors at Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village (Calif.).
“Brendan is a good athlete with desire,” said Ferguson. “With some experience, he has a chance to be heard from.”
James Wilkes, a 6-5 junior outside hitter, will redshirt in 2007. He appeared briefly in just 3 matches last spring after transferring from Lewis.
Not only is Ferguson making his head coaching debut, but USC will sport 3 new assistant coaches with notable resumes: John Hawks, Brad Keller, Blake Robinson. The staff’s only familiar face is Brandon Crisp, now in his fourth year at USC. He’ll serve this year as the team’s technical coordinator after being an assistant coach the previous 3 seasons.
Hawks spent the past 4 years as an assistant at UC Irvine, helping the Anteaters to a historic 2006 campaign when they won their first MPSF title and advanced to the NCAA Final Four. He also won gold medals while coaching the prestigious Balboa Bay Volleyball Club for 9 years. For the past 5 seasons, Keller ran the Bay To Bay Volleyball Club, a highly-regarded program in Northern California. Robinson was an assistant with the Carnegie Mellon women’s team this past season.
So, the ingredientsboth new and oldare there as USC attempts to reclaim its place among the country’s top volleyball programs.
“We’re looking for improvement across the board and to make some noise in the MPSF playoffs,” said Ferguson. “I expect us to be one of the most competitive teams in the league by the end of the season.”