Whenever the USC men’s volleyball squad is mentioned, senior All-American candidates Tony Ciarelli and Steven Shandrick are the names that quickly come to mind.
The Trojans’ squad, however, possesses a hidden star. He might have only been here for about a semester and a half, but middle blocker Robert Feathers is already among the nation’s best. Currently leading the nation in blocks with 1.64 per game for the No. 2 Trojans, the freshman out of Loyola High School in Los Angeles has ruffled through opponents’ game plans all season and might already be top dog at his position.
Though Feathers’ volleyball abilities speak volumes already, coach Bill Ferguson and his staff recruited a player who is never content to rely on his talent — especially because Feathers’ decision was between USC and that other school across town. When asked why he chose USC, Feathers mentioned a bond between player and coach, one stemming back seven years before Feathers was a touted recruit and before Ferguson had risen through the coaching ranks to where he stands today.
“I first met Coach at a SCVC [Southern California Volleyball Clinic] camp in sixth grade. We had a weird connection since we both went to the same middle school,” Feathers said. “I didn’t actually attend the camp; I just went to check it out and coach noticed me. He was having a two-week tryout and told me to come on out. I had no idea what I was doing, but he suggested I take up volleyball and you know what happened next.”
Considering Feathers was six-foot-six by the end of middle school and has grown two inches since, the position of middle blocker seemed natural. In volleyball, the middle blocker’s role is to attempt to block down any shot hit over the net. It requires timing, power and height. Luckily for Feathers, he has all three down pat.
“He’s one of, if not the, hardest-working guys in the gym,” Ferguson said. “He wants to be great, and does what it takes. You see the hard work and determination paying off.”
Though Feathers puts in his fair share of time in the weight room and on the court, his impressive transition to the faster-paced style of college volleyball has been aided by two important mentors. The first is assistant coach Jeff Nygaard, who has helped Feathers immensely by improving his swinging and hitting mechanics. Nygaard, who was a middle blocker himself as well as an Olympian during his playing days, has earned the admiration of his pupil.
“The guy is just ridiculous,” Feathers said.
Meanwhile, Shandrick has proven to be, in the words of Feathers, “an on-court version of Jeff.”
“I can always go to Steve to calm me down on the court,” said Feathers. Considering Shandrick’s three prior years of experience at the position and Feathers’ ever-improving skills, the two have turned into a formidable duo for any opposing squad.
Combined with the Trojans’ current 10-match winning streak, it would seem Feathers has something to hang his hat on. He has, however, only one focus.
When asked about how it feels to be the nation’s top blocker, he coolly replied, “I’m thrilled it’s happening, but achievement alone is not going to win a championship. We have to work hard as a team, and everyone needs to be on an equal level in order to win when it matters most.”
The Trojans might be hot now, but the NCAA tournament is when the team’s best play is needed. Despite the program’s prestige, the Trojans have not won a national title since 1990. In May, the Galen Center will host the mens’ volleyball Final Four and one can bet that the Trojans do not want this golden opportunity to take home the title on their home court to go to waste. Besides, for Feathers, what’s a better place to start off one’s career at USC than at the top?
Despite his initial success, Feathers still has his “freshman moments,” such as one of his shoes falling off not just once, but twice in a match. Fortunately, the freshman standout is neither dwelling on these mishaps or settling on his playing abilities.
“I’ve got a long ways to go, but it’s exciting to know I can get so much better,” Feathers said.
Considering his superb play and even better attitude toward the game, USC fans should be excited for the future as well.