Just two years ago in Mexico, USC sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio was a big fish in a small pond, excelling at a sport that involved hitting a ball over a net when the rest of the country was — and still is — preoccupied with kicking a ball into a net. Now, Bricio has taken over the volleyball scene at USC and across the nation with a deadly serve and a quiet intensity that intimidates opponents while inspiring her teammates.
Bricio has been a force on the USC women’s volleyball team since arriving on campus. She took the conference by storm from the outset, winning the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honor an unprecedented five times throughout the course of the season and helped the team advance to the NCAA Tournament. Her rise to volleyball stardom, however, was not always a certainty, and for a long time seemed to be even unlikely.
A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, Bricio never envisioned herself playing volleyball after high school. At 16 years old, she was the youngest player to ever play for Mexico’s national team and displayed enough talent to play at the next level. Despite all of her accolades in high school, her future in volleyball seemed foggy at best.
“I only figured out I wanted to play in college two or maybe three years ago,” Bricio said. “My dad told me how cool it would be to play in the United States, and I thought ‘Yeah, it would be really cool,’ but I didn’t have any scholarships and I thought I wasn’t good enough to play there.”
Eventually, though, her father convinced her to pursue it, and soon enough Bricio was entertaining offers from several NCAA programs. The decision for Bricio came down a choice between currently top-ranked Texas and USC. The allure of Los Angeles and the Trojan tradition was enough for Bricio to choose playing for head coach Mick Haley and the Women of Troy.
Haley was a fan of Bricio from the start, and saw something in her that he rarely finds in recruits — let alone international recruits.
“As an athlete, she’s tall, she’s strong, she’s quick and she’s explosive,” Haley said. “She’s got the classic arm swing, and had all of that before she came here.”
Despite Bricio’s offensive prowess, Haley knew that there would be things to work on in her game during her collegiate career, but he did not expect her to be so willing to adapt or adjust so quickly to life as an NCAA volleyball player.
“She wasn’t spongy and wasn’t really tuned-in defensively,” Haley said of Bricio as a high school player. “But her greatest asset is she just loves to play the game. You put her in a competitive situation, and she kicks it up four times. That’s what we picked up on.”
As a freshman, Bricio immediately became a star. She started all 36 matches for the Women of Troy and played in all but one of the team’s 122 sets. Along with her five selections as Pac-12 Freshman of the Week, Bricio was the first-ever freshman to win the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week and was named the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association National Player of the Week on Oct. 9 of last year.
By the end of the season, Bricio had proven herself on the court to be a legitimate star on an already star-studded volleyball team. She led the team in kills, service aces and points, and finished the season ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in kills per set with 4.06. These accolades were good enough to earn her a spot on the Pac-12 All-Conference team, the Pac-12 All-Freshman team and even an honorable mention on the AVCA All-America team. She was named Freshman of the Year by Volleyball Magazine and, to top it off, was named the Freshman of the Year for the Pac-12.
After such an impressive freshman season, many wondered whether Bricio would suffer from a sophomore slump. So far this season, this has not happened, as she has managed to find ways to improve her game even further, especially on the defensive end.
“Samantha couldn’t wait to get back here in August to join the team,” Haley said. “Which is surprising because she was a little homesick last year. She is now one of the team leaders whether she knows it or not. She’s improving her game in the backcourt, she’s already improved her passing. She was awesome in blocking, another area she’s trying to improve.”
Bricio has seen her number of kills decline this season, but not for lack of effort or skill. By design, the offensive strategy has shifted to a more spread-out attack style, in part to save Bricio for the postseason and in part to utilize USC’s newest offensive weapon — freshman outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu.
As an outstanding freshman outside hitter, Nwanebu is in a way following in Bricio’s footsteps from last season. Though there might be competition between the two, Nwanebu is happy to have Bricio standing alongside her on the court.
“Sam is one of my best friends,” Nwanebu said. “I remember last year when I was in high school and she was a freshman, I just wanted to be her, I thought she was so amazing. When I got here I was intimidated at first, but she welcomed the freshmen with open arms.”
More than her statistics or athletic ability, Bricio’s most important skill is arguably her attitude and dedication for the team. Senior libero Natalie Hagglund has been impressed by Bricio’s demeanor from the beginning.
“What she brings is such a quiet intensity,” Hagglund said. “You don’t really see her out there cheering or jumping around, but you will see her get a straight-down kill and not see her make any facial expression. Last year, she was an offensive asset for us. This year, she does everything.”
With only four weeks remaining in the regular season, Bricio looks to lead USC to its first national championship in 10 years. With her improvement in all areas of her game and a talented roster of teammates around her, this just might be the year the Women of Troy break through — and Bricio will add yet another accomplishment to her resume that, only two years ago, seemed to be virtually impossible.
Follow Kurt on Twitter @legen_daryKurt