In each of the past three seasons, the USC women’s volleyball team has been stopped short of their preseason aspirations of winning a national championship. This year, with an unprecedented amount of young talent on the roster and three seniors hungry to reach new heights, the Women of Troy look to do something they haven’t done in ten years — bring a national title back home to Los Angeles.
Three years ago, libero Natalie Hagglund, middle blocker Alexis Olgard and outside hitter Sara Shaw, all current USC seniors, were freshmen on a star-studded roster but saw their national championship dream end when they were beaten in the national semifinals by California. A year later, the Women of Troy were knocked out in the same round, this time by Illinois. Last season, USC suffered a surprisingly early exit from the tournament when they were ousted by Texas in the fourth round.
These early exits have allowed USC’s three senior leaders to amass a wealth of experience that will help them aid their largely young and inexperienced team through new territory. The Women of Troy finished the regular season with a strong 26-5 record (16-4 Pac-12), good enough to finish third in a very competitive conference and rank No. 7 nationally.
Hagglund, who was just named the Pac-12 Libero of the Year for the third straight season, is ready to take advantage of every moment of the tournament.
“I’m excited because it is my last tournament to compete in,” Hagglund said. “This is the last time I have to play with this team and this group of girls and shoot for that championship.”
For the Women of Troy, team unity might be just as important this year as anything else. Though in the past, USC has boasted talented teams heading into the tournament, head coach Mick Haley believes there is something special about this current group of players.
“This is the tightest team that I’ve had in a long, long time,” Haley said. “They really take care of themselves and they take care of each other. They’ve got each others’ backs, and it’s a team that’s continued to get better throughout the season.”
Though team chemistry is invaluable for USC, there are still flaws that must be corrected if the Women of Troy are to make a deep tournament run. Inefficient hitting and inconsistent play led to some surprising losses, including a sweep at the hands of an unranked Arizona team in October and a disappointing loss at Washington State just a few weeks ago in five sets. Through the season, though, the team has learned to look past those setbacks and learn from them heading into the next matches.
“I’ve learned that you can’t overlook any team,” Hagglund said of her experience this past season. “This year has been a prime example of that … These teams are all going to be great teams; there’s 64 of them and it’s going to be a lot harder than we think it is to get past every single team.”
The first test for the Women of Troy will come this Thursday night when they take on the Wildcats of the University of New Hampshire. The Wildcats were 20-12 this season with a 12-2 record in the America East Conference. Though they suffered a seven-game losing streak earlier in the season, the Wildcats are currently on a nine-game winning streak, including a thrilling five-set win in the America East championship game two weekends ago. Though New Hampshire posted a stellar 12-1 record at home, its road record was a mere 7-5. Fortunately for USC, its next two games (and possibly four, should they make the regional round) will be at home in the Galen Center.
If the Women of Troy can defeate the Wildcats, they will face the winner of Thursday’s other match between Colorado State and Cal State Northridge. USC has not faced any of the three teams in its bracket yet this season, but their unfamiliarity with them is not a cause for concern.
“It’s going to be interesting to see different things,” said sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio. “Each team has something different so it’s going to be really exciting for us.”
Haley, though also optimistic, knows that no team will be an easy opponent in the tournament.
“I’ve seen the teams that we could play,” Haley said. “The New Hampshire team runs a lot of different things that we haven’t seen. They’re scrappy, they serve very well, they have a couple of left-handers and they’re unconventional with their style. We’ll have to be ready for that.”
Should the Women of Troy advance past the first two rounds, they can expect to start seeing some familiar opponents. Nine Pac-12 teams qualified for the 2013 NCAA tournament, the most of any conference in the nation and the most in Pac-12 history. Three of those teams earned a top-16 seed: Washington, Stanford and USC.
The players are anxious to improve upon last season’s fourth-round exit, but most of their motivation is for the seniors on the roster to end their careers with a national championship.
“We look forward to winning,” Bricio said. “But the thing I have in my mind right now is that it’s the seniors’ last year. I’m looking to win for them.”