USC hoping to continue recent surge

When a team is in the middle of a six-game winning streak, most coaches are content to keep the starting lineup the way it is to avoid fixing something that’s not broken.

Reinforcement · Sophomore middle blocker Alexis Olgard, who had offseason knee surgery, saw her first action this season last weekend against Colorado. She is now challenging senior Lauren Williams and freshman Hannah Schraer for a starting position. - Daily Trojan file photo

But ahead of this weekend’s conference matchups on the road against Arizona and Arizona State, USC coach Mick Haley is encouraging position battles for three of his team’s six starting spots.

“I’m kind of in a different type of dilemma,” Haley said. “We’ve got good rhythm right now and we’re moving forward, but we can’t just sit pat.”

The No. 5 USC women’s volleyball team (11-3, 6-1) will travel to Tucson, Ariz., on Friday to play the Wildcats (10-5, 2-4), who USC has beaten in eight of the teams’ last 10 meetings. The two losses, however, have come in the last three years and on the Wildcats’ home court.

Afterward, USC will travel to Tempe, Ariz., to play the Sun Devils (4-11, 0-6) on Saturday, who the Women of Troy have also dominated in recent years.

The Women of Troy have won 29 of their last 30 matches against Arizona State, with the lone loss coming last year when the Sun Devils scored an upset at home.

But Haley seems confident enough in his team to spread out playing time during USC’s trip through the Grand Canyon State.

“You could see some changes [in the starting lineup] yet again,” Haley said. “We have to start working in people who have been working hard in practice and keep building the team for December.”

The main spots that could see new faces in the starting lineup are the two middle blocker positions and one of the outside hitter starting spots.

Freshman Hannah Schraer and senior Lauren Williams currently start at middle blocker, but they will be challenged by sophomore Alexis Olgard, who started 25 matches last year and is on the verge of returning to full strength after battling offseason knee surgery and mononucleosis.

“[Olgard] is right on course to be challenging for a [starting spot],” Haley said. “She just has to get her legs, timing and all of that into the speed of the game. We’re playing at a really fast pace right now.”

Meanwhile, sophomores Sara Shaw and Kirby Burnham have been battling all year for the outside hitter starting spot.

“To have someone else pushing you makes you want [to play] even more,” Shaw said. “So it’s good that [Burnham] and I are competing and really fighting for that [starting] spot because we both really want it.”

Shaw took over as the squad’s six-match winning streak started, but Haley said that Burnham has been showing improvement in recent practices.

Lengthy position battles could hurt the chemistry of some teams, but neither Haley nor the players seem worried about that possibility.

“I think competition for positions is healthy, as long as everybody is positive about it,” Haley said. “And so far all of the team members have been great about this.”

The players agreed. The competition for starting positions should only bolster team unity.

“We definitely have interchangeable parts,” Schraer said. “It’s really great now in practice to have more competition for the spots. Overall, that will really strengthen our team. Whoever plays will get the job done.”

USC tips off against Arizona tonight at 7 p.m. and against Arizona State on Saturday at 8 p.m.