Women's Volleyball
    2012 USC Women's Volleyball Season Outlook
    All-American libero Natalie Hagglund
    All-American libero Natalie Hagglund

    Aug. 23, 2012

    LOS ANGELES - Coming off back-to-back appearances in the NCAA semifinals, the fifth-ranked USC women's volleyball team sets its sights on the elusive national title. After opening the 2011 season with a 5-3 record, the Women of Troy captured the first-ever Pac-12 crown with a 20-2 mark in league matches, including a stretch run through which they posted a 24-1 record.

    A return to the national semifinal won't be an easy task for USC, which must replace last year's Pac-12 Player of the Year and AVCA National Player of the Year in outside hitter Alex Jupiter. The three-time All-American ranked fourth in the Pac-12 and led the Trojans with 4.47 kps as a senior en route to solidifying herself atop the USC record books with the most all-time kills, attacks, and points in a career.

    Offensively, Jupiter was the centerpiece of the USC attack for four years, but Troy must also find a replacement for the 2012 Pac-12 Setter of the Year: Kendall Bateman. If Jupiter was the team's centerpiece, Bateman was the heartbeat to the Trojan offense. Her 12.03 assists per set topped all players in the Pac-12 and placed her in the top spot for career assists at USC. At the net, the Women of Troy also bid farewell to the services of All-American middle blocker Lauren Williams who ranked second in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage.

    In 11 seasons at the helm, head coach Mick Haley has produced a 284-16 record for a .816 winning percentage. He guided the Trojans to the conference title for the third time during his tenure at Troy and received the league's Coach of the Year award; his first such honor at USC.

    "In order to be as successful as our national semifinalist squads, I think we have to be as disciplined as those other two teams by November," said Haley. "We certainly have confidence in our specialty positions and we know that we just have to play hard, every day."

    The incumbent setter for the Trojans is sophomore Hayley Crone, who saw action in just 21 sets a year ago. Used sparingly as a freshman, Crone managed to be effective in her time on the court as she posted 37 assists and 10 digs in relief of Bateman.

    "Hayley Crone is doing a good job, so far," said Haley. "She has been very good at picking up the details of our offense. The international trip we took over the summer helped her a great deal. I look for her to be as close to where Kendall Bateman was as a sophomore as anybody we've ever had."

    Crone will have plenty of weapons at her disposal when the Trojans take the court. USC has a stable of middle blockers who are each eager to contribute. Sophomore Hannah Schraer comes off an impressive freshman campaign during which she put up 133 kills and hit .383. Schraer also tallied 45 blocks for the Trojans as a frosh. Though she was limited a year ago, junior Alexis Olgard registered 94 kills in just 56 sets last year. Olgard averaged 0.84 blocks per set and logged a .388 hitting percentage when she was in action.

    Senior Natasa Siljkovic has also improved over the offseason and should prove to be a valuable piece in the USC rotation. New to the middle, freshman Alicia Ogoms is the first-ever Canadian scholarship women's volleyball player in the program's history. Ogoms' long reach and raw talent make her an immediate factor at the net.

    "We're very lucky we have the four middle hitters that we have," said Haley. "They've each been battling and we feel very comfortable with having any of the two on the court, right now."

    At the pins, the Trojans return a pair of dynamic hitters. On the right side, senior Katie Fuller is a force to be reckoned with. An All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season, Fuller was the team's second-leading scorer behind Jupiter and averaged 2.83 kps. She also added 19 service aces and 54 blocks to her final line.

    Junior Sara Shaw provided the Trojans with 2.09 kps as a sophomore and will be called upon to fill some of the scoring void that has been left by Jupiter. USC will also rely on its youth to shore up the offense. Incoming freshman outside hitters Samantha Bricio and Kiara Wright bring a mature level of athleticism to the court, and will be expected to contribute early in the season. One year older, the Women of Troy also expect a strong contribution from sophomore opposite Emily Young.

    "We think Sara Shaw has stepped it up a bunch," said Haley. "She's a crafty kind of player; not an overpowering kind of player. We're very happy with the improvements she has made in the offseason. We also think Samantha Bricio has great potential to be something very special. Kiara Wright is so physically gifted. We hope that, by the middle of October, she can feel comfortable on the court within our offense."

    A year ago, the Trojans ranked fourth in the conference in digs, thanks in large part to the effort of Pac-12 Libero of the Year Natalie Hagglund. Hagglund ranked second in the league for digs with 5.14 dps, and became USC's first-ever All-American libero. Hagglund not only brings tangible efforts to the court, she has assumed the role of team leader and will be looked to for direction as Troy ushers in a new era. She and senior defensive specialist Erin Yoder will patrol the back row for the Women of Troy.

    "Natalie Hagglund is the heart and soul of this team," said Haley. "She keeps us focused and positive. Along with the seniors and their leadership, Natalie does an awful lot on a day-to-day basis of keeping the energy in the gym and providing us with that spark that just keeps us going. I think we have a never-say-die attitude whenever she's out on the floor."

    If a return to the national semifinal is in the cards, the young Trojans will need to rely on their senior leadership for guidance.

    "Our seniors have been working hard to take on leadership roles," said Haley. "They have really tried to replace what Kendall, Alex, and Lauren did last year. So far, I think they have done a wonderful job with it. I think Katie Fuller will be one of the best players in the country, this year. She has not only done the off-the-court stuff, but the way she has prepared for this season has been even better than the last two years that she has been a starter for us. Erin Yoder has come in in the best shape of her life, and Natasa Siljkovic has really picked it up. She started for us during our international trip. I look for the seniors to give us a good boost."

    Though the Trojans return some experience to the court, the squad is ripe with youth. Along with Bricio, Ogoms, and Wright, USC brings in highly-touted setter Cinnamon Sary; a Southern California product.

    "The freshmen are very athletic," said Haley. "They really change the look of our team. As soon as we get their volleyball IQ's up where it needs to be, I think we're going to see their athleticism give us a big boost. When you've got people that are jumping higher than the other team, and you couple that with the right strategy, it makes for a lethal combination out on the court."

    Some of the faces have changed, but one thing that has remained the same is that the Pac-12 Conference is still one of the toughest places to play. USC must defend its league title against six other teams that are ranked in the AVCA's preseason poll, including top-ranked defending NCAA champion UCLA. In all, the Trojans will have 14 matches against teams ranked in the first poll of the year; 12 against Pac-12 foes.

    "The schedule is difficult and we're probably going to be challenged two, three, or four times before we get into our conference matches," said Haley. "But that was the idea with setting it up the way we did. We have to open conference play with possibly the two toughest teams with UCLA and Oregon, so we wanted to face teams that might show us something at least a little comparable to what we'll see in our own league. That hopefully will give us a good idea of where we stand and get us ready to face the conference schedule."

    The Trojans open the 2012 season on the road at the Texas A&M Invitational in College Station, Texas, Aug. 24-25, against North Dakota, Texas A&M, and Texas State. USC returns home to host a pair of tournaments in successive weekends. The Women of Troy welcome a ranked Northern Iowa squad, Boston College, and Mississippi State to Galen Center for the Luxe City Center Trojan Invitational on Labor Day weekend (Aug. 31-Sept. 1). USC opens defense of its Pac-12 title when rival UCLA comes to visit on Sept. 19; a match that will be televised on ESPNU.