With more than 35 years of experience coaching women’s volleyball, there is not much in the business that USC head coach Mick Haley has not experienced.
From Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich., to the U.S. Olympic team, Haley has mentored hundreds of players, coached almost every squad he’s overseen to national prominence and won four NCAA championships.
But as he enters his 13th year at the helm of the USC women’s program, Haley insists he’s having just as much fun as the day he started.
“Every time you start a new team and lose seniors and you have to redo the team, it’s always a new challenge,” Haley said. “It’s one of the most exciting things you can have. Some jobs, you get one opportunity for a new challenge, but we’re challenged every year with assembling the team and getting the players to gel.”
After 16 years at Texas and four years with the Olympic team, Haley joined USC in 2001 and immediately turned the program into one of the best in the nation. He guided the Women of Troy to back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003, as well as third-place finishes in 2004, 2007 and 2010.
“The volleyball part is easy. You have to be constantly smart about playing by the numbers,” Haley said. “If you look at football coaches, why does Urban Meyer win? He puts people in the right spots. Pete Carroll was also good at putting people in the right spots. We tend to do a pretty good job with that as well.”
After a strong 2012 campaign in which they finished 30-6, the Women of Troy suffered a disappointing end to their season, falling 3-0 to Texas in the NCAA Regional Finals. Haley will have to adjust to the departure of outside hitter Katie Fuller, one of the team’s most critical performers last year, and determine how to incorporate six freshmen into USC’s rotation. True to form, he is more than ready for the challenge.
“The reason why it’s exciting is because it stimulates the heck out of you,” Haley said. “You get to see what you can create each year with the people you have. We get dynamic, young people who are excited to pursue excellence athletically and academically. It becomes a very unique challenge for us to see if we can teach with the time we have and bring the team together.”
USC retains six starters from a season ago, highlighted by senior libero Natalie Hagglund, the reigning Pac-12 libero of the year, and sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio, who garnered 2012 Volleyball Magazine and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors.
Hagglund, who alongside Bricio was named to the preseason all-conference team by league coaches, praised Haley’s impact on her life as both a volleyball player and a student.
“Mick is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, and he’s taught me that there’s more to life than just volleyball,” Hagglund said. “He’s taught me that in order to win, you have to work hard every single day and not give up at any point. He’s quite hard on us in practice, but he cares a lot for the team as well as our lives beyond volleyball.”
Though adjusting to player turnover and integrating incoming freshmen is a tough task for any coach, Haley is optimistic about the team’s potential this year and particularly praised the squad’s upperclassmen.
“I’m excited that Natalie Hagglund has worked so hard to improve, as well as [senior middle blocker] Alexis Olgard and [senior outside hitter] Sara Shaw. That gives me tremendous hope because it’s hardest to get improvement from your oldest players,” Haley said.
With the majority of the battle-tested core returning intact, Haley is excited to see how his latest recruiting class will gel with the experienced veterans on the court.
“[Freshman outside hitter] Ebony Nwanebu is an unbelievable talent, and [freshman outside hitter] Elise Ruddins is a tall body and has also had a lot of success,” Haley said. “We have a talented center in [junior setter] Hayley Crone, and we’ve got a great middle blocking situation as well.”
Nwanebu, a 6’4” outside hitter from Fairview, Texas, looks forward to the beginning of her USC career under Haley’s tutelage.
“Coach Haley is actually the reason why I came to USC,” Nwanebu said. “He’s an amazing coach, and I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country. I really look forward to playing under him.”
After almost 30 successful seasons coaching powerhouses Texas and USC, Haley always maintains the drive to win the national championship each year. After all his years in the sport, and with the NCAA title becoming more and more difficult to capture, he never tires of the competition.
“It’s really fun. It’s not like, ‘What have you got left to do?’ We want to win every year,” Haley said. “But there are 347 teams and only one’s going to be on top at the end. We start every August with a 12-month approach, but the parts are always different and that’s what’s unique about it.”
Though many of USC’s top athletic programs are in a state of change, the women’s volleyball program can rest easy knowing that Haley, the rock of stability, is still here, anxiously awaiting the next challenge ahead.