Volleyball Opens Training Camp With High Hopes For 2004
Aug. 9, 2004
It has been the No. 1 goal for more than four years. Tucked away in a file labeled "2000 Team Goals" it simply states:
Win Two; Then do what no other women's collegiate volleyball team has ever done before...
Win Three In A Row.
The 2004 USC women's volleyball team has now reached that point and, after two consecutive national championships, is looking to garner a third-straight.
A third trophy has proven to be the most elusive for some of the greatest teams in the sport of women's volleyball. The USC teams of 1976, 1977, 1980 and 1981 put together two-year streaks, but were never able to grab the third. Hawai'i won back-to-back titles in 1982-83, Pacific did so in 1985-86, UCLA in 1990-91 and Stanford in 1996-97, but no one has claimed the three-peat
"This is the culmination of our plan and a part of the goals we set for ourselves when I first joined the USC staff," said head coach Mick Haley, who enters his fourth season at the helm of the Trojan volleyball program. "We wanted to make history and now we have the opportunity. We are obligated to try and see if we can repeat our championship performances of the past two years."
With returning starters such as two-time All-American middle blocker Emily Adams (Phoenix, Ariz.), All-American middle blocker Bibiana Candelas (Torreon, Mexico) and two-time NCAA Championship MVP outside hitter Keao Burdine (Pico Rivera, Calif.), it may seem as if the Women of Troy are in good shape.
"We do have some strong and experienced players back in our lineup, but it will take a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck," said Haley. "We have to focus on short-term goals, like figuring out a starting lineup and making sure that the players start to learn and develop the basics of a new team. This will take time and we will have to stay very focused and be very patient."
Among all the challenges that the Women of Troy may face this season, the toughest may be having to deal with the pressure that comes with such a lofty goal. Not only is USC attempting to defend its NCAA crown, but the Trojans are also riding an NCAA-record 47-match win streak. Opponents will be looking to be the first to stop USC on its incredible run.
But if the team needs to learn how to deal with the pressure, all they have to do is look back to last season.
USC entered 2003 as the preseason No. 1 and heavy favorite to repeat thanks to a starting lineup that remained completely intact. With arguably the nation's toughest schedule, the Trojans were challenged each and every night, including 17 matches against ranked opponents and 13 opponents in the top 10. In the end, the Women of Troy captured their second consecutive NCAA Championship (the program's sixth title overall) in thrilling fashion.
Led by a talented group of upperclassmen, who were considered by many as one of the greatest of all time, the Women of Troy successfully defended their national and conference crowns with a perfect 35-0 record and 18-0 mark in the Pac-10. The Trojans became only the fourth team to go undefeated en route to a title, and the only team to ever do so as a repeat champion.
The championship marked the sixth for Haley in his 27-year career. He was named the 2003 AVCA Division I National Coach of the Year and became the first-ever Trojan coach to garner the honor.
An unprecedented four USC players were named to the AVCA All-America first and second teams, and a record eight earned all-conference accolades (including five first team selections).
Five seniors - April Ross (the 2003 Pac-10 Player of the Year and Honda Award Winner), Katie Olsovsky, Toni Anderson, Nicole Davis and Kelli Lantz -- completed their USC careers among the best of all time. In four years, these five players guided the Women of Troy to two national championships, three conference titles, four top-5 rankings and a combined 119-8 record for a 93.7 win percentage.
But their time is over. This season the Trojans must learn to build a new team under the senior leadership of co-captains Adams and Alicia Robinson (Phoenix, Ariz.), and Burdine - three players who could easily surpass the accomplishments of last year's senior class.
Combined, Adams, Burdine and Robinson boast two national championships, two Pac-10 titles and a 91-5 (.948) overall record.
"The majority of the responsibility this season does lie in our seniors who have been through this before," said Haley, who owns an 864-193-1 (.817) record in his 27 years as a collegiate head coach. "For us to really have a chance at a shot at a third championship, they have to be really good and give more than is usually expected. If they are willing to do that, and if they provide solid leadership for our younger players, then I believe we can get back to the Final Four."
In order to do so, the Women of Troy will have to fill some important gaps left behind by last year's lineup.
"We have to replace the hitting and passing of Ross, in addition to her overall leadership," said Haley. "We have to find someone who can match the blocking of Olsovsky, the setting of Anderson and the defense of Davis, who played all six rotations of every game and every match."
Ross, who averaged 3.65 kills, 0.52 service aces and 3.15 digs per game, accounted for more than a fourth of USC's offense in 2003. Olsovsky contributed 2.5 kills and nearly a block a game, Anderson led with 10.73 assists per outing and Davis guided the team with 4.25 digs per game.
Despite the strength of their numbers, the returners also did their fair share.
Adams and Candelas led the nation with .431 and .434 attack percentages, respectively, in addition to ranking among the nation's top five with 1.39 and 1.24 blocks apiece. Adams contributed 3.36 kills per game, while Candelas added an average of 3.05.
"These are undoubtedly two of the best players in the country," said Haley. "We will need them to continue to dominate at the net and I look forward to another great campaign from each of them."
Burdine nearly matched Ross' offensive and defensive outputs with 3.47 kills and 3.01 digs per game.
"Keao has been a workhorse for us for three years and I know that she is more than prepared for this season," said Haley. "She really gives us strength on the left side and she has not even reached her limit. She has an amazing ability to bump her game up another notch at any given time."
In addition to these three standouts, the team also returns two players who have been waiting in the wings for their shot at a starting position.
Robinson, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter, shined as a freshman, but has since been hampered by injuries that have limited her playing time. After undergoing her first foot surgery in May 2003, Robinson was not fully recovered by the start of last season. She played a limited role, but still managed to contribute 1.48 kills per game in 29 appearances. Prior to USC's NCAA Regional Final, Robinson reinjured her foot and was sidelined for the remaining three matches. In January, she underwent a second surgery and has been working hard to prepare for the start of her final year.
"Alicia is a real question mark for us," said Haley, whose career has included seven successful years at Kellogg (Battle Creek, Mich.) Community College, 17 years at Texas and four years with the USA Women's National Team. "We could really use her in our lineup, but we have to wait and see how she has rehabilitated. She has worked so hard to make her body stronger this summer. If she is ready, we know that she can provide 10-15 kills a night, and that would be bad news for opponents."
Next in line is 6-foot-3 junior middle blocker Staci Venski (California City, Calif.), who took a much more active role in 2003. Coming off the bench, Venski accounted for 1.31 kills and 0.40 blocks per game, in addition to hitting at a .383 clip.
"Staci came a long way last year in a more consistent substitution role," said Haley. "We will need her to be even more dynamic for us this season and we want to see her get more playing time. She could certainly strengthen our ability to score."
Setter Kimi Freeburg (New Castle, Ind.), libero/defensive specialist Debora Seilhamer (Ponce, Puerto Rico) and defensive specialist Anne Montgomery (Menlo Park, Calif.) round out the set of returners who make up the 2004 squad.
Freeburg split time at setter with Anderson last season in the Trojans' 6-2 offense. She played in all 35 matches, including the NCAAs, and averaged 4.50 assists per game. Seilhamer served as Davis' backup at libero and contributed at defensive specialist for the Women of Troy. She played in 32 matches, mainly as a substitute server, and averaged 1.01 digs per game. Montgomery also served as a substitute server and made 14 appearances.
"In reality, all eight of our returners have had some kind of playing experience and that puts us in a great position," said Haley. "To have eight athletes back who have all played, including players like Kimi and Debora who even saw time in the championship matches, that would make most coaches feel pretty comfortable."
Alex Dunphy (Malibu, Calif.), a 6-0 setter, redshirted the 2003 campaign due to injuries and enters her redshirt freshman season this year.
Flashback to 2000
The Women of Troy may have lost one of the best classes to ever walk the halls of Heritage Hall, but the coaching staff did a pretty good job in finding comparable replacements. This season, USC welcomes what has been considered by most as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
Topping the list are four Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selections, including 6-foot-2 middle blocker Katelyn Bishop (Terre Haute, Ind.), 6-foot-2 middle blocker/opposite hitter Diane Copenhagen (Mountain View, Calif.) and a pair of 6-foot-1 outside hitters Sarah Florian (Toledo, Ohio) and Jessica Gysin (Mountain View, Calif.).
"Even though they are both extremely talented groups of athletes (referring to the 2000 and 2004 freshman classes), I don't think you can compare them to each other," said Haley, under whose direction USC has signed three No. 1-ranked recruiting classes since 2000. "This group may not match the other players in size, but they are extremely quick, they have great ball control and they possess a lot more domestic and international playing experience."
These four impact players all enjoyed great success at the high school level, as well as on the USA Youth and Junior national teams.
Copenhagen and Gysin led St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif., to four-straight CIF state championships, including the 2002 mythical national championship, during their prep careers. As a four-time state championship all-tournament selection and 2002 MVP, Copenhagen also led her club teams to two Junior National Championships. Gysin, a two-time CIF state championship MVP and four-time all-tournament pick, was also a four-time Junior Olympic All-American.
A graduate of St. Ursula Academy in Toledo, Ohio, Florian helped lead her prep team to an impressive 106-7 record, four league championships and four state semifinal appearances. She was honored to the Junior Olympic all-tournament team in 2003.
Bishop prepped at Terre Haute (Ind.) South Vigo High where she helped lead her prep team to two state regional finals. She was honored as the 2003 Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year.
Additionally, Copenhagen, Florian and Bishop were members of the USA Youth and Junior National squads that captured the 2002 NORCECA gold medal and finished fourth at the 2003 World Championship in Poland.
Setter/opposite hitter Kathleen Gilmour (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) is the fifth member of this heralded freshman class. At 6-foot-1, she played for both Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach) and Santa Ynez (Calif.) Valley Union High, and enjoyed great success on the club volleyball level where she helped Hotshots to high finishes at the 2004 and 2003 Junior Olympics.
"This is definitely a talented group of freshmen who will challenge for positions this season," said Haley. "Not only are they experienced, but they will also benefit from the strong set of returners and upperclassmen who will show them the way at this level."
A Tale Of Five Setters
Thanks to the addition of two transfer players, USC will not lack depth at the setting position this season.
In addition to Freeburg, Dunphy and Gilmour (who may likely redshirt this season), the Women of Troy welcome 5-foot-10 Nena Siljegovic of Simi Valley, Calif., and 5-foot-7 Alli Dillon of Long Beach, Calif. Siljegovic is a junior transfer from Moorpark (Calif.) Community College, while Dillon enters her sophomore year after spending the 2003 season at San Jose State.
"We think we have come up with great replacements for Anderson among this group of setters," said Haley, who himself was a setter at Ball State. "Our 6-2 offense gives us the ability to maximize our talent and we plan to continue with that style so that we may utilize our depth to the best of our ability.
"All of our setters are going to have to work very hard to connect with our hitters. They will not be competing against each other. The ones who make the hitters the most successful are the ones who will play."
Siljegovic has already experienced national attention while attending Moorpark. After leading MCC to a No. 6 national ranking and a Western State North Division title last season, she was honored as the 2003 AVCA Two-Year College National Player of the Year. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Siljegovic has proven to be a physical and dynamic player in a short four years since immigrating to the United States.
Dillon enters this season as the most experienced of the incoming setters, having already spent one season playing Division I volleyball. As a freshman at San Jose State, she earned a starting role and led the squad with 12.26 assists per game.
"The goal this season is to be as good of a team as we can be by the end of the year," said Haley, who will be looking for his seventh national championship this year. "If we can be patient and not get down on ourselves, if we can work hard and serve as good role models for the freshmen, then I think we have a chance to be as good as last year's team... or certainly approach that level."
No one can argue that USC has not been tested en route to its back-to-back championships. Playing in the Pacific-10 Conference, in addition to facing a consistently strong nonconference schedule, has provided the Women of Troy with only the toughest competition. In 2003, USC faced nearly every opponent that spent any time at all in the top 10, and this year should be no different.
USC will make a return trip to the NACWAA Volleyball Classic to start the 2004 season. The Women of Troy, who captured the tournament title last year by sweeping both Hawai'i and Florida, will again face top-level opponents. Taking place in Fort Collins, Colo., the two-day tournament will feature 2003 NCAA semifinalist Minnesota, regional finalist Georgia Tech and regional semifinalist Colorado State. The Trojans will face the Yellow Jackets in the first round on Aug. 27, with the consolation and championship matches to be played on Aug. 28.
Following a home match against Georgia on Sept. 4, and a match at likely top-10-ranked Pepperdine on Sept. 5, the Women of Troy will hit the road again for two additional tournaments. USC will face American, Miami (Ohio) and Illinois at the State Farm Illini Volleyball Classic, Sept. 10-11, then travel to Columbia, S.C., for the South Carolina Invitational, Sept. 17-19, to face Notre Dame, Michigan State and South Carolina.
The Pac-10 conference season begins Sept. 24 and 25, when the Women of Troy host Washington State and Washington.
"I think that the Pac-10 is the most challenging conference in the country this year," said Haley. "I have looked through the conferences, and, as far as top 10 or top 20 teams go, it looks to me that we have six or seven of those teams right here.
"The only problem is that many of our teams won't stay among the top rankings because we have to face each other in conference play. We'll just beat each other up, but I think it will all pay off in the postseason."
The season concludes with the NCAA Tournament, which begins with the first and second rounds to be held at 16 home sites, Dec. 2-5. Regionals will take place Dec. 9-12 at four pre-determined sites, Louisville, Ky., Minneapolis, Minn., Seattle, Wash., and Green Bay, Wisc. The NCAA Final Four will take place Dec. 16 and 18 at the Long Beach (Calif.) Arena.