The moment came sometime in the second set of an early season non-conference match against Cal State Fullerton.
After a slow start that saw his team lose the opening set, USC women’s volleyball coach Mick Haley decided to put his trust in his freshmen.
Three straight set victories later, Haley’s faith has been rewarded.
“No matter who it was that I put in there, they all stepped up,” Haley said. “That’s when I got to thinking: This group really is going to be special.”
Now, this isn’t your ordinary group of rookies. Tabbed as the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com, these six freshmen were among the most sought-after high school players in the country.
Still, turning that talent into results so quickly wasn’t easy.
“You always worry about freshmen because it’s such a big change from high school to the college game — it’s so much faster,” Haley said. “But these kids are a little bit exceptional in that they just adjust to whatever you throw them into.”
Infused with new talent, the Women of Troy have piled up 11 straight wins in non-conference play, losing only three sets in the process. They enter tonight’s match against UCLA at the Galen Center unbeaten and ranked No. 6 in the nation.
This group of freshmen might have arrived at the perfect time for USC volleyball. After reaching the Final Four for the fourth time in six years in 2007, the Women of Troy have faded into the middle of the Pac-10 standings over the last two seasons. In 2008 and 2009, USC didn’t make it out of the second round of the NCAA tournament, falling to Hawai’i twice.
“After we went to the Final Four in 2007, we expected to go back a couple of more times but we weren’t able to do that,” Haley said. “We just seemed to be lacking one player or the maturity of several players.”
Enter the recruiting class of 2010.
Outside hitter Falyn Fonoimoana, ranked the No. 1 high school senior in the country last year, has boosted the Women of Troy’s attack with 85 kills, second on the team.
Middle blocker Alexis Olgard, the No. 5-ranked recruit, stands 6-foot-5-inches tall and is tied for second on the team with 21 blocks.
Libero Natalie Hagglund is one of two players to play every set so far for USC. Ranked the No. 1 player at her position in high school, Hagglund leads the Women of Troy with 130 digs.
“We knew that we were the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation but that just made us all work harder,” Hagglund said. “We knew that we were going to have a target on our backs.”
Sara Shaw (the No. 11 recruit) and Kirby Burnham (No. 49) can both play outside hitter and opposite, and have figured into the rotation as well, combining for 51 kills and 70 digs.
Outside hitter Sam Hirschmann has also played in five matches for USC.
“We probably out did ourselves in getting this many good kids in one class,” Haley said. “It’s almost a perfect storm.”
Normally, all the hype about a freshmen class like this could turn off the returning players on a team.
“Right when we came in [the upperclassmen] kind of laid down the law,” Hagglund said. “They told us, ‘We’re here to play as a team and not to judge you because you’re a freshman. We’re not gonna separate by class — everyone’s just as important on this team.’”
After a great performance in non-conference play that included a five-set road win over old nemesis No. 5 Hawai’i, the Women of Troy have earned national respect.
The real test, though, begins tonight with the start of a grueling 18-game Pac-10 slate.
The freshmen will also get their first taste of the cross-town showdown, with the No. 11 Bruins providing the opposition in front of Fox Sports Net cameras for the conference opener.
“For this freshman group, they want to be like the group in the early 2000s who took it upon themselves to say, ‘We’re never losing to the Bruins,’” Haley said. “I think they would like to start that again.”
A bold goal for a young group, but clearly, confidence is not a problem for these freshmen.
“They don’t fear that they’re not good enough,” Haley said. “They know they’re good enough. They get frustrated when they can’t be perfect all the time. It’s a whole different mentality with this group.”
To be sure, Haley is glad he trusted his freshmen. They haven’t disappointed.
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