The No. 21 USC women’s volleyball team will begin its Pac-12 journey on Wednesday against rival No. 11 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, and the Trojans will be challenged by the Bruins early in their bid to return to the NCAA tournament. The Trojans regularly face the Bruins twice in conference play, yet they did not manage to defeat the Bruins last year in four- and five-set losses from their two matches.
The Pac-12 conference in Division I women’s volleyball hosts a daunting schedule for all teams involved. The conference includes the 2016 NCAA National Champion Stanford as well as six additional teams, including the Trojans, who are currently also nationally ranked: No. 7 Washington, No. 8 Oregon, No. 11 UCLA, No. 16 Utah and No. 25 Colorado.
Facing UCLA first is going to build the foundation for the Trojans’ Pac-12 performance, but a loss could be detrimental to the team’s momentum as it follows up this game with a match against the currently unranked Oregon State and Washington State programs prior to meeting No. 7 Washington on Oct. 1 at the Galen Center.
“The game against UCLA will be fun, especially since the team has been preparing for conference to start against our crosstown rival,” junior middle blocker Brittany Welsh said. “Preseason has been great for us because we have been working through our system to get ready for the Pac-12 competition.”
As they had last season and this season thus far, the Trojan lineup is presumably going to rely heavily on sophomore outside hitter Khalia Lanier. This season alone, Lanier has swung on approximately one-third of the Trojans’ overall hitting attempts — compiling 171 kills in the 40 sets she’s played. UCLA is presumably going to key in on this Trojan tendency and match up larger blockers while focusing on establishing double and triple blocks against Lanier while she’s front row, which actually unlocks many opportunities for the Trojan offense.
Senior setter Reni Meyer-Whalley and sophomore setter Cindy Marina, who share setting duties for the Trojans, will be keys to success for USC against UCLA. Since the Bruins will likely focus on deterring Lanier as an offensive threat, these two setters have the opportunity to establish their faster-paced offense to give junior outside hitter Alyse Ford and senior opposite hitters Niki Withers and Brittany Abercrombie more hitting opportunities with less pressure from the Bruin block.
However, the key aspect to success against UCLA will be the setters implementing the middle blockers into their offense more than they are currently setting them. The Trojan middle blockers — Welsh and seniors Jordan Dunn and Danielle Geiger — collectively account for a little over 11 percent of the total attempts despite their combined 79 kills on 154 sets to this date.
Effectively setting the Trojan middles can only be achieved with a solid serve receive and defensive unit, which junior libero Victoria Garrick has done by leading the back row and accumulating a team-high 150 digs so far this season.
Ultimately, UCLA will be ready to compete and may have a different playing style than what the Trojans have been exposed to, since many of their indoor players also compete for the school’s beach volleyball program, whereas the Trojans’ squad is solely indoor athletes.
Senior setter Sarah Sponcil of UCLA will be leading its offense, and her experience on the sand will give her court vision and awareness that is not typically embodied by solely indoor players. Sponcil just transferred to UCLA from LMU, where she was a standout beach volleyball athlete before withdrawing to compete for Team USA last year.
The Trojans’ most difficult hurdle to overcome, however, will be the Bruins’ defense. UCLA junior libero Zana Muno has already earned Pac-12 weekly defensive honors and sophomore libero Savvy Simo has also accumulated numerous digs when playing alongside or replacing Muno. Both liberos have been key players on the UCLA beach squad in past years, and their defensive capabilities are highly attributable to covering the entire court in the sand game.
Both the Trojans and Bruins are expected to be fired up, and they anticipate a grueling match that will display two ranked and rivaling programs competing to gain an early lead in Pac-12 play.