The women’s volleyball team begins its 2018 campaign in the Trojan Invitational at Galen Center on Friday with a match against the University of Kentucky. The team will also face Creighton and Northern Iowa on Saturday in the round-robin tournament.
Ranked 10th in the AVCA national preseason coaches poll and second in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll, the Trojans field a strong team in 2018. They are led by junior outside hitter Khalia Lanier, last season’s leader in points and kills, and senior setter Reni Meyer-Whalley, 2017’s leader in assists. Also returning are senior libero Victoria Garrick, who was first on the team in digs and third in assists, and senior middle blocker Brittany Welsh, third on the team in blocks.
The Trojans lost a true star in All-American opposite hitter Brittany Abercrombie, who was second on the team in both kills and blocks. With Abercrombie showcasing her talents with the Team USA Pan Am Cup preliminary roster instead, the Trojans will need to find a suitable replacement if they want to live up to their ranking.
USC has added five freshmen to this year’s squad. Middle blocker Abby Hansen, at 6-foot-4, is an intimidating presence with the potential to be an offensive force. Setters Ashley Humphreys, who went undefeated throughout her high school varsity career, and Raquel Lazaro, who won two Spanish National Championship gold medals, also join the fray. The newcomers are topped off with powerhouse outside hitter Brooklyn Schirmer, who comes off winning a club national championship and competing for Redondo Union High School.
These aren’t the only new faces, however. This weekend will also mark the beginning of the Brent Crouch era. The newly minted head coach, who inherited a winless Portland team in 2014 and led them to their winningest season in 25 years by 2016, was given the top job in January.
In addition, middle blocker Jasmine Gross transferred to USC for her junior season. Gross excelled in her two years at Pepperdine, earning All-West Coast Conference first-team honors twice and ranking fourth in the nation in blocks per set in 2017 with 1.52.
The Trojans take on fifth-ranked Kentucky in their first game of the season Friday at 7:30 p.m. The Wildcats are an aggressive and dangerous offensive team, finishing fourth in both hitting percentage and kills per set a season ago. They return their top two leaders in points in junior outside hitter Leah Edmond and sophomore outside hitter Avery Skinner.
This is a tough opponent for the Trojans to face in their opening game. Kentucky is prolific, having made it to the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship tournament, and should only improve as its young stars mature. However, the Trojans should be able to put up at least a good fight, as they made it just as far in last season’s bracket.
USC faces Northern Iowa the following morning at 10:30 a.m. The Panthers are unranked but not to be underestimated. They boast the high-scoring hitter duo of Piper Thomas and Karlie Taylor, who combined for an incredible 1,166 points last season. They rode these two stars to the most kills per set in the nation in 2017. Northern Iowa set up Thomas and Taylor well, ranking second in assists per set a year ago.
UNI did have to replace leading server Bri Weber, however, so the Trojans should look to take advantage of any shortcomings early in plays.
Finally, the Trojans play 13th-ranked Creighton Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. The Bluejays are another strong offensive team, albeit not as intimidating as Kentucky or UNI. They ranked 14th in hitting percentage and 18th in kills per set in 2017.
Creighton also returns its two best scorers from last season in senior outside hitters Jaali Winters and Taryn Kloth, both of whom topped 350 kills. Liberos Brittany Witt and Samantha Bohnet, who each had at least 28 service aces and 109 assists, will be leading its defense.
This weekend is a test to see what the Trojans are made of. Their performance against two top-12 teams in the country and perhaps the best offensive team in the nation should be a good indicator of just how good USC can be this season.