Women of Troy aim to take the next step

The USC women’s volleyball team is one of the most successful programs in the school’s athletic history. Since 1981, the Women of Troy have made nine Final Four appearances and won three National Championships, good for fourth most all-time.

Two of those national championships came under current head coach Mick Haley. Despite the success the program has had under Haley, USC hasn’t won a championship since 2003. But despite the 10-year drought, the Women of Troy have made a name for themselves as one of the top women’s volleyball programs in the nation.

Last season, the team finished with a stellar record of 30-6, but didn’t advance to the Final Four, falling to eventual champion Texas in the Elite Eight.

But the Women of Troy performed much better than Haley had expected. A year before, in 2011, USC had a very successful team that advanced to the national semifinals. After the season, the team lost many key starters and was preparing for a year of rebuilding — but things changed.

When asked to pinpoint a reason why the team exceeded his expectations last season, Haley’s answer was simple.

“[Samantha] Bricio changed everything,” Haley said. “As a freshman, she was just remarkable.”

Bricio was the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon in 2012, leading the team in kills, service aces and points. Despite her breakout season, Haley admitted that he might have overworked the talented underclassman, and that exhaustion was one of the reasons that the team didn’t advance further into the postseason.

But last season was a great learning experience for both the coaches and the players. During the offseason, the returning members of the squad improved their skills and grew closer as a team. With a plethora of starters returning this season, including senior libero Natalie Hagglund, senior middle blocker Alexis Olgard, senior outside hitter Sara Shaw and junior setter Hayley Crone, another deep run in the NCAA tournament is the goal.

“We need to build off of last season and keep in mind that the game is not over until the last point goes down,” Hagglund said. “Last season, when we were down during a game, we didn’t fight back as hard as we should have.”

Haley will lean on his returners to combat lapses in effort and to improve upon last season’s NCAA tournament run. But a talented group of newcomers will also be expected to contribute immediately, and one freshman in particular appears poised to make a splash.

“We all need to look out for freshman outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu,” Haley said.

During the summer, Nwanebu was named the Most Valuable Player of the USA Volleyball Junior National Championships after leading her team to the national title. As a prep star in Fairview, Texas, Nwanebu was an Under Armour All-American and was named the Volleyball Magazine High School Player of the Year.

The other freshmen on the roster are outside hitter Elise Ruddins, setter Alice Pizzasegola and liberos Anne Marie Schmidt, Kelly Wimmer and Taylor Whittingham.

“It’s going to be a fun season because the team we have this year is different,” Haley said. “As a whole, we’re more experienced and more motivated.”

After finishing third in the Pac-12 last year behind Stanford and Oregon, USC was picked to finish second behind the Cardinal in the preseason conference poll, receiving two of 12 first-place votes.

“I’m most excited for the UCLA and Stanford matchups because they are not only rivals, but they are also top contenders within the Pac-12 conference,” Hagglund said.

In the American Volleyball Coaches Association national poll, the Women of Troy are ranked No. 4, after defending national champion Texas, Penn State and Stanford.

There’s no doubt that the expectations are higher this year, and the team is looking forward to the challenges it will be facing and hopefully overcoming with the support of their fans.

The Women of Troy open up the season on the road against Purdue on Aug. 30. The first home game is against UC Irvine on Sept. 18, a game that will be televised nationally on ESPNU.

Surely the Trojans have worked hard and are coming off an excellent season. Now it’s time to see what the payoff will be — they’re hoping that it’s a national championship.


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