There certainly was plenty reason for optimism.
Opening the season ranked No. 2 and boasting three returning senior All-Americans to go along with a top-10 recruiting class, the USC women’s volleyball team’s expectations were quickly tempered.
The Women of Troy lost two of their first three matches, including a shocking upset to unranked Central Florida, and fell flat in a 3-0 sweep in their Pac-12 opener against UCLA in front of a record crowd of 5,385 at Galen Center, giving them a 5-3 overall mark — the first time USC had lost at least three of its first eight matches since 2005.
“With our conference schedule starting so early this year, we didn’t have [time] to try different things,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “So we had to guess at some things in the lineup. It just seemed like we didn’t have the right combination out on the floor.”
With his squad struggling, Haley decided to insert sophomore outside hitter Sara Shaw into the starting lineup in place of fellow sophomore Kirby Burnham, an outside hitter and opposite.
So far, the move has paid immediate dividends.
Shaw tallied a career-high 15 kills and led the team in hitting percentage (.481) to spark USC in a road sweep of then-unbeaten No. 4 Washington.
“She’s a comfortable person for everyone to play with,” Haley said. “[Shaw] was instrumental in settling us down.”
Since the UCLA loss, the Women of Troy have ripped off six conference sweeps in a row for the first time since 2003, when they won the NCAA championship.
The streak includes victories over California and Stanford, who were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at the time.
“We were all just really pumped and excited going against these two good teams,” Shaw said. “We had nothing to lose at that point, so we just gave it all we got and had a good show.”
Another unexpected source of offense has come from freshman middle blocker Hannah Schraer, who has started all season while sophomore middle blocker Alexis Olgard recovered from offseason knee surgery and a bout of mononucleosis.
Schraer is ranked third in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.386) and is averaging 1.73 kills per set.
“In the beginning, it was a little stressful just getting used to the speed of the game,” Schraer said. “Now as a team, we’re definitely more comfortable playing together.”
Schraer’s numbers are nearly identical to Olgard’s, who ranked fifth in the Pac-10 with a .366 hitting percentage while also averaging 1.73 kills per set last year.
“Usually, freshmen middle [blockers] can’t do what [Schraer] has done,” Haley said. “She’s really done an exceptional job. I have not had a freshman come in, other than Olgard last year, who has played like this.”
Olgard played briefly last weekend against Colorado and Utah for her first appearances of the season, and Haley said she should be back to full speed by mid-October.
Haley said he wants to give junior middle blocker Natasa Siljkovic some playing time when she returns from the injury and wants to work Burnham and other bench players back into the rotation.
Haley is encouraged by the progress he’s seen over the past few weeks, but he knows that anything can happen from now until the NCAA title match in December.
“We’ve gone on a nice roll, but we have two more months of the regular season yet to go,” Haley said. “My experience [as coach] says don’t get too excited this early, and don’t get too down. You just gotta stay with it and keep improving.”