The USC women’s volleyball team has a habit of stacking up wins to start the season.
Before this year, the No. 12 Women of Troy (7-3, 2-1) hadn’t lost more than two of their first 10 matches since 2005, when they started 4-6 before recovering to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Much of the same was expected this year after reaching the Final Four last season, landing USC the No. 2 spot in the preseason poll behind three returning All-Americans and a top-10 recruiting class.
But after sophomore outside hitter and reigning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Falyn Fonoimoana was declared ineligible on the eve of the season, the Women of Troy sputtered out of the gate, losing two of their first three matches, including an embarrassing 3-0 sweep at the hands of unranked Central Florida.
They won their next four matches before their home opener against then-No. 8 UCLA, which was heavily promoted by USC’s marketing department in an attempt to set an attendance record for a volleyball match at the Galen Center.
The record was set, but the 5,385 spectators witnessed the home team fall to the rival Bruins in a 3-0 sweep.
“I think we were in a funk before we ever walked in the gym, and we couldn’t get them focused properly,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “And sometimes when that happens, you try too hard when you have a crowd like that.”
The Women of Troy rebounded last weekend, however, by sweeping Washington and Washington State on the road, but their expectations have definitely been tempered since first receiving that lofty preseason ranking — the team was ranked No. 12 in the poll released Monday.
Some of those early-season struggles can be attributed to injuries sustained by sophomore middle blocker Alexis Olgard and junior middle blocker Natasa Siljkovic, players expected to compete for the starting middle blocker spot.
In their absence, freshman Hannah Schraer has been forced into the starting lineup.
Haley praised the play of Schraer, who was not expected to receive much playing time this season, but admitted, “Hannah isn’t as good as a blocker as [Olgard] is.”
Olgard and Siljkovic are expected to return to the rotation soon, but one player USC will miss for the entire season is Fonoimoana.
Fonoimoana started in 31 of 34 matches last year, and was second on the team in kills (3.34 kills per save) and points (3.93 points per save) en route to winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors.
Fonoimoana was expected to be a key contributor for the Women of Troy, but just one week before the team’s first match, it was announced she was ineligible for the 2011 season.
“[The personnel losses] have affected our ability to defend,” Haley said. “We’re just having trouble defending our opponent’s counter-attack, and that starts at the net with our blocking … And Falyn is [listed at 6-foot-4], so she takes up a lot of area up there.”
Haley also pointed to the left side of the team’s counter-attack as an area in need of improvement.
Sophomore outside hitter/opposite Kirby Burnham had been starting as left outside hitter before the team’s trip to the Washington schools, before Haley decided to insert sophomore Sara Shaw in her place.
The move seemed to spark the team’s offense, as Shaw set a career-high of 15 kills in USC’s victory over No. 4 Washington, and added 11 digs to record the double-double.
Haley hopes he has found the winning lineup for the Women of Troy; they’ll endure arguably the toughest two-game stretch of their schedule this weekend when No. 1 California (13-0, 3-0) and No. 2 Stanford (8-1, 2-1) come into town.
“[The schedule] has just worked out that way,” Haley said. “It’s very challenging, but we want to beat those teams at the end of the year, so playing them early gives us a good benchmark to know what to do if we play them later.”
Haley is encouraged by his players perseverance in practice despite the disappointing losses, and is confident the team will be back to its winning ways soon enough.
“We win 80 percent of the time here [at USC], and when we don’t do that, it’s upsetting,” Haley said. “If we weren’t getting good effort in practice, I would be more concerned than I am right now. If I can get this kind of effort every day for the next two months, we’ll be very good [at the end of the season].”