With a healthy dose of incoming freshmen and one of the strongest groups of returning upperclassmen in recent memory, the USC women’s volleyball team is prepared to overcome last season’s quarterfinal exit in the postseason and embark on a long, successful 2013 campaign.
The Women of Troy, ranked No. 4 in the preseason American Volleyball Coaches Associaton poll, head to West Lafayette, Ind. this weekend to participate in the Mortar Board Premier tournament. The team will square off against host No. 16 Purdue on Friday before taking on Western Kentucky and Alabama A&M in a Saturday doubleheader.
“I think we’re getting challenged very well in this tournament. We have two Top-20 teams in the tournament,” head coach Mick Haley said. “I want to get the jitters out and make everyone’s focus really strong. I hope we can win the matches, but when you start with a Top-20 team, you get everyone zeroed in quickly.”
The Women of Troy put together a strong 2012 campaign, finishing the regular season 30-6 (including a dominant 17-1 mark at home) before succumbing to Texas at the NCAA Regional Championships. Though they’ve only had to face the departure of one starter — outside hitter Katie Fuller — they welcome six new freshmen at three different positions.
Senior libero and captain Natalie Hagglund, a two-time All-American, emphasized the importance of leading by example and assimilating the newest members of the team.
“It’s really important as a leader or upperclassmen to support the freshmen and prepare them for even worse than what it may be,” Hagglund said. “We want to make sure that our upperclassmen are focused every day, and we can share our stories and experiences with the freshmen to inspire them.”
Haley noted that regardless of the roster makeup, starting the season on the right note is crucial, and drove home this point as his team prepares for the opening tournament.
“We really want to get comfortable with our serve-receive patterns. Each year is different and we’ve moved players around, so there’s always a different set of patterns,” Haley said. “The other focus is having the defense be consistent. We constantly work on that because that’s what keeps us in matches when we can’t pass as well as we would like. Defense always starts with blocking and offense with passing, so those are the two points of emphasis.”
Haley adopted an aggressive approach during practice, one that was certainly not lost on the players.
“He has been harping on a sense of urgency, and for us that means fighting for every ball like it’s the last point,” Hagglund said. “We have to be tenacious on defense and really good in practice, because hopefully you can play a great game if you’ve been great in practice.”
Winning is always an understood goal, but Haley also wants to make sure that the various parts of his lineup can coalesce into a strong, dependable unit.
“Playing these teams on the road, we can’t afford to make many mistakes,” Haley said. “We played Michigan State three or four years ago up there and lost in five sets because we couldn’t sustain the focus.”
USC is expected to incorporate several of the new members of the squad into the starting rotation due to the strong freshman class, ranked second in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com.
“We have six new members on the team and may be starting as many as two or three of them, even though we only lost one,” Haley said.
Among the newcomers expected to make a mark this season are outside hitters Ebony Nwanebu of Fairview, Texas and Elise Ruddins of Laguna Niguel. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively, the two will be expected to fill the void left by Fuller’s departure and complement the duo of sophomore Samantha Bricio and senior Sara Shaw. Being thrown into the fire against a top-20 team such as Purdue in their first collegiate match might be challenging for the freshmen, but Haley knows playing a tough nonconference schedule should help prepare them for even more formidable opponents as the season goes along.
“I think it will be a very challenging trip for us,” Haley said. “But [playing tough teams] is something you have to practice.”
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