Each season, women’s volleyball head coach Mick Haley must fill positions created by the loss of key players, but this year, he’ll face an even greater challenge.
In addition to the loss of the 2015 AVCA Player of the Year and three-time All-American Samantha Bricio, sophomore setter Baylee Johnson will also not return this season due to academic ineligibility.
This unfortunate turn of events leaves the Trojans without their powerful outside hitter and starting setter. Haley brought Johnson in last season to fill the spot left by two graduating players. Now, Haley is forced to find a replacement for Johnson sooner than expected.
“She had an opportunity to try and take care of it, and she didn’t do it,” Haley said. “So now it’s a problem for her that is going to take time. I’m hoping that she’ll sift her way through this and figure out that she wants to be back here, but I haven’t had any indication from Baylee of what she is going to do.”
Last season, Bricio, the senior captain, led the charge with one of the strongest individual performances in USC history, recording one third of the team’s points. However, it was her chemistry with Johnson and her other teammates that helped the Trojans clinch a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with an 18-2 conference record.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Trojans breezed through their first three matches, defeating University of San Diego in three sets and both Cleveland State and Creighton in four. However, in the quarterfinals match against Kansas, the Trojans’ weak start resulted in Kansas taking the first two sets. USC’s impressive comeback forced a fifth set, but Kansas held on despite Bricio and Johnson’s combined efforts.
With the loss of the two starters, Haley is concerned that the young team will still be developing when the season begins.
“I think early we will have trouble scoring points, getting our setting to be comfortable with people having to get to know each other quickly,” Haley said.
However, the level of incoming talent is encouraging, and Haley is confident that their eight new players have a great deal to offer.
“I believe that we have some really special players on this team,” Haley said. “I’m excited to see if we really can be as good as our potential will allow us to be.”
Four of the incoming players are freshmen, and each will vie for a starting position. Daley Krage was one of the most highly-coveted recruits in the country. Haley hopes her presence as an opposite will provide strong blocking and hitting from the right side. Fellow freshman outside hitter Khalia Lanier is another huge addition, with 496 kills last season and 324 digs the previous year at Xavier College Prep. in Phoenix.
In regards to setter, Haley will have returning senior Alice Pizzasegola and Nikki Leonard, a junior transfer from Gonzaga, to compete for the role.
Haley expects two of the team’s biggest games to be their Pac-12 home opener against UCLA on Sept. 21 and another home game against Washington on Sept. 23. The Bruins and Huskies were the only teams to defeat the Trojans in league play last season.
Despite Johnson’s ineligibility and Bricio’s graduation, Haley has approached the season with a positive and determined attitude. He has led his team to the NCAA Tournament in each of his previous 15 seasons, and has no plans to end that streak in 2016.
His experience and Trojan pride give him added confidence, allowing him to mold his team into championship contenders.
“We not only expect to qualify, but we expect to go a long way in the tournament and have a chance to win every year,” Haley said. “If we aren’t thinking like that, then we aren’t thinking like Trojans.”