2013 USC Women's Volleyball Season Outlook|
Aug 20, 2013
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LOS ANGELES - You have to walk before you can run, but before you can walk, you need to have balance. The 2013 USC women's volleyball team is as well balanced as a squad comes and the Women of Troy have their sights set on the national championship once again.
The Trojans return one of the most prolific liberos in program history in two-time AVCA All-American Natalie Hagglund. The senior captain averaged 5.02 digs per set a year ago and was named the Pac-12 Libero of the Year for the second time in her career. USC's defensive anchor has already painted her name throughout the Trojan record books and is poised to complete her career with the most digs in school history.
On offense, USC wields one of the most devastating weapons in the conference as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Samantha Bricio returns for her sophomore season. Bricio was also named AVCA Pacific Region Freshman of the Year and received Volleyball Magazine National Freshman of the Year honors. In her first season, Bricio earned 4.06 kills per set and attacked at a .241 clip.
It is the 10th-anniversary year of USC's 2003 NCAA crown and the opportunity for 13th-year head coach Mick Haley to bring the Trojans their seventh national title in women's volleyball. It would be Haley's fifth in NCAA Division I women's volleyball. He owns rings with each of USC's championships teams from 2002 and '03 as well as titles from 1988 and the AIAW championship in 1981 with Texas.
The Women of Troy have advanced as far as the NCAA regional championship match in four of the last six seasons. Three of those times, USC was a national semifinalist.
Just returning to that semifinal match won't be enough for the Trojans. Lofty goals exist for a squad that returns six starters including its libero. From top to bottom, USC has all of the pieces in place to make a run at the 2013 NCAA championship.
"Anytime you have three seniors that start, it's definitely a strength because you have leadership," said Haley. "Our seniors are people who are time tested, and that helps a great deal."
Not a senior, but a valuable cog to the Trojan machine is incumbent starting setter junior Hayley Crone. Crone was a steady producer from her position a year ago and led the team in assists (11.05 aps) and was chosen as one of two setters to go to China with the Pac-12 All-Star Team, this summer.
"Hayley's self-confidence has grown so much since last season," said Haley. "She made the China trip and she got to see some international competition. I see her just blossoming. She is a fantastic setter, but she has really grown as a person. She is really confident of her abilities now, and I think we'll see improvement at the setter position, this season."
In addition to Bricio, Crone has several options on the outside with senior outside hitter Sara Shaw and left-handed junior Emily Young poised to bring added firepower to the offense. Shaw was one of USC's most steady passers in 2012 and contributed 2.87 kills per set (.238). An understudy of since-departed All-American opposite hitter Katie Fuller, Young entered most matches as a blocking specialist last year and has plenty of experience.
"I'm really looking for improvement in not only our middle blockers, but our entire front row," said Haley. "We need to be much better at the net, this year. Defense starts in the front row. We're good at the serving and passing game, but we need to be able to defend at the net, and we need to be able to score better out of the middle."
At middle blocker, the Trojans will look to senior Alexis Olgard to set the tone. She was the team's leading blocker a year ago and ranked second in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.394). Olgard had a big junior season with a 2.06 kps average and took up back-row duties in the latter portion of 2012. Junior middle blocker Hannah Schraer played sparingly as a sophomore upon her return from illness, but was effective when she did play and looks to play a strong role on the front line this season. Sophomore Alicia Ogoms turned heads as a freshman (1.43 kps, .334) and former outside hitter Kiara Wright will be a formidable pair of blockers in USC's defensive efforts.
"I think the middles are a work in progress, right now," said Haley. "I expect Alexis Olgard will be far better by the time we get into conference matches. Alicia Ogoms had a great summer playing for the Canadian Provincial team, and her confidence is way up. Hannah Schraer had a great spring and we moved Kiara Wright over from the outside and she has shown much improvement, this fall."
Last season, the Trojans bid farewell to a senior class that made two final four appearances and will have to replace the production of Fuller. USC's incoming recruiting class is ranked No. 2 by PrepVolleyball.com and brings in a pair of outstanding outside hitters that each add power and athleticism to the lineup.
When 2013 opens, the Women of Troy will have the services of two of the nation's most sought-after hitters in Elise Ruddins and Ebony Nwanebu. Ruddins is the niece of former USC All-American and Olympic star Kim Ruddins (1981-85) and Nwanebu led her club Texas Advantage to the 2013 Junior National Championship. USC also welcomes a new setter to the fold in Italian import Alice Pizzasegola. With the impending departure of Hagglund, the Trojans' 2013 freshman class includes three liberos: Anne Marie Schmidt, a Volleyball Magazine High School All-American, Kelly Wimmer, and Taylor Whittingham.
"I think we have a great returning cast and if we have to, we can replace Fuller by committee," said Haley. "Emily Young was certainly an understudy in that right front position, and the two freshmen Nwanebu and Ruddins are cannons coming in. They may not be as sophisticated as Fuller was or as comfortable just yet, but certainly the three of them can, in some way, fill that role and maybe even produce additional points that we couldn't get a season ago."
The Trojans have plans to bring the freshmen into the fold and get production out of the class as soon as possible.
"I think at least half of our freshman group needs to make contributions for us to be as good as we want to be, this season," said Haley. "We can get point scoring from Nwanebu and Ruddins. They can contribute at the net right away. Certainly Pizzasegola is one that we would like to have contribute as a setter immediately."
USC will open the season on the road at the Mortar Board Premier hosted by Purdue on Aug. 30. The Trojans play nine matches on the road before their first home match on Sept. 18 against UC Irvine. The Women of Troy face a tough pre-conference schedule that requires them to travel to the Midwest on back-to-back weekends. Upon their return to California, the Trojans will head down the interstate to face WCC power San Diego in the season's third tournament.
ESPNU will broadcast live to a national audience when USC hosts the Anteaters for its home opener on Sept. 18. The Trojans will also face Cal State Fullerton in a non-conference match during the last weekend before league play begins.
Crosstown rival UCLA will visit Galen Center for another nationally televised match on Sept. 25 as the Trojans open Pac-12 play. USC will only face the Mountain schools once each, this year. The team will travel to Utah to play the Utes (Sept. 29) and play Colorado (Nov. 29) to close the regular season at home. USC opens October as host to defending Pac-12 Champion Stanford (Oct. 4) and then will host California on Oct. 6.
A four-match road trip through Oregon and Arizona dominates the belly of October before the Trojans return home for matches against Washington State and Washington. Before the month ends, USC heads up to the Bay Area for a second match-up against Stanford (Oct. 30) and Cal (Nov. 1) but will close the season with five home matches in the month of November not including one short trip to Westwood to face the Bruins on Nov. 27.
USC has hosted first- and second-round NCAA matches in each of the last 10 years. This season, the Galen Center may host first and second round matches, but will also play host to the NCAA's Los Angeles Regional Championship set for Friday and Saturday (Dec. 13-14). The University of Washington and the Seattle Sports Commission will host the 2013 NCAA Championships at Key Arena in Seattle (Dec. 19-21).
"It's not our desire to travel three weekends in a row to start the season, but we really felt like we needed to test our team in as many different situations as possible, early on," said Haley. "Once we get into Pac-12 play, it's such a dogfight. With both Purdue and Western Kentucky ranked in the top 25, it makes that tournament a real focus point for us to open the season. I think our pre-conference schedule gets us prepared. We have five excellent matches in the first three or four weeks of the season at home, and it should be great for spectators and for our players."
Around Troy, lofty expectations for the women's volleyball team are nothing new. This season, the Women of Troy return a strong group of veterans and welcome a highly-touted freshman class. Expectations will again be sky high, but USC's balance will be its strongest asset.
"I think with the seniors we have, and the fact that we've been to seven final fours in the last 12 years, but haven't won a title in 10, it says a lot that we won't be satisfied unless we go to Seattle and have a chance to win," said Haley. "Everything else before that is preparation. I think we have to walk before we run, to use an old cliché, and just touch all of our bases."
For more information on the USC women's volleyball team and a complete schedule, please visit www.USCTrojans.com.