No. 4 Women of Troy look to make the leap this year

In 2013, the USC women’s volleyball team made it back to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year but was defeated in a five-set thriller against Washington. At most universities, making it that far would be considered a success, but not at USC — here, anything less than a national championship is a disappointment.

Hit it · Sophomore outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu was named the 2013 AVCA Freshman of the Year after posting 3.47 kills per set last year. - Nick Entin | Daily Trojan

Hit it · Sophomore outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu was named the 2013 AVCA Freshman of the Year after posting 3.47 kills per set last year. – Nick Entin | Daily Trojan

USC finished the 2013 campaign with an overall record of 29-6 and a Pac-12 record of 16-4.

One of the staples of this women’s volleyball program is head coach Mick Haley. Haley is entering his 14th season as head coach and is eager to reach the Final Four for what would be his the seventh time during his USC tenure.

Haley always has the same goals for his team, but he said he was sad to see last season end against Washington.

“The goal is always a Final Four appearance and to compete for a national championship,” Haley said. “It’s frustrating especially being ahead two sets and then have two swings to win in the fifth game. We have been on the other side where we have come back and won, it evens out eventually.”

After falling to Washington, the Women of Troy lost only three seniors, but they were crucial losses. All-American libero Natalie Hagglund, All-American middle blocker Alexis Olgard, as well as outside hitter Sara Shaw all graduated last spring. Hagglund and Olgard have continued their volleyball careers by joining USA volleyball rosters since they graduated.

With the new school year comes a new season of women’s volleyball, but this year’s team is younger than previous teams. The Women of Troy only have five upperclassmen compared to its 11 underclassmen. Four starters will be returning to continue their athletic careers at USC.

With last year’s team captain Hagglund leaving, senior setter Hayley Crone has emerged as the team’s new captain.

Crone is one of three seniors on the team and last season she started all 35 matches. She had the most assists on the team and will be filling Hagglund’s shoes as floor general.

“Natalie did a good job being team captain by communicating with the coaches and with the team,” Crone said. “She kept everyone on the same page. I want to fill her shoes by keeping everyone on the same page and taking care of the little things.”

With Crone filling Hagglund’s spot as captain, the next task is to find a replacement in the back row.

The Women of Troy are placing an extra emphasis on passing this season, and have three sophomore liberos on their roster looking to improve. Haley has been impressed by their progress.

“Taylor Whittingham has the game experience and Anne Marie Schmidt has greatly improved. It all depends on who steps up during fall camp,” Haley said.

Haley said he would like to have positions for every player at the start of the year, but since this team is so young, it will be tough.

“[The] first goal is to get players into positions so that they can contribute,” Haley said. “Since this team is so young we have to focus more on the system than on individual fundamentals. We will have to go back during the season and work on the fundamentals while trying to win the conference.”

The system that the team will run is called a 6-2, which means the Women of Troy will use two setters and both will come out of the back row. This system was used last year and both setters — Crone and sophomore setter Alice Pizzasegola — are returning. This system worked wonders for last year’s team as it gave them three viable hitters at the net.

Just like the Trojan football team, members of the women’s volleyball team hope to tweak the offense just a bit. Haley would like to use an up-tempo style if the passing is good enough.

Haley noted that the middle blocker position is especially deep for USC. The team has Hannah Schraer in her senior year, Alicia Ogoms as a junior and talented freshman Jordan Dunn in that position.

In her first full season, Schraer had a .348 hitting percentage and 116 blocks on the season, but in her sophomore season, she was sidelined by illness. Schraer said she it was difficult returning to the court, but took it in stride.

“During the season I learned how hard it was to be in season and to try to balance everything,” Schraer said. “You can’t have an off day and you can’t have a bad day.”

Ogoms and Dunn will be fighting for the second middle blocker position behind Schraer. Haley has taken some interest into newcomer Dunn based on the way she plays.

“Dunn is a very exciting and athletic middle blocker,” Haley said. “We have never had anyone as a middle who can pass like her.”

Dunn prepped at Corona High School where she was a two-time All-Big VIII Conference First Team and led her club team to a third place finish at the 2014 Junior National Championships.

Even with an infusion of fresh young talent, the Women of Troy are still highly regarded when it comes to the polls. In the AVCA preseason poll, USC was ranked fifth. In the Pac-12 preseason poll, the coaches picked the Women of Troy to finish second, behind only the Stanford Cardinal. They also named Bricio and sophomore outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu to the preseason all-conference team.

Nwanebu and Bricio anchor what might be the most exciting position for the Women of Troy: outside hitter. In 2013, Nwanebu was named the AVCA National Freshman of the Year and earned AVCA All-American First Team honors after leading USC with 3.47 kills per set. Bricio wasn’t far behind, averaging 3.46 kills per set.

Bricio also had a stellar freshman season in 2012, averaging a whopping 4.06 kills per set on her way to being named Volleyball Magazine’s Freshman of the Year.

Nwanebu, Bricio and their teammates open the season on the road against Rider on Aug. 29, while their first home game will be played on Sept. 11 against Texas A&M.

Though USC women’s volleyball team may be young this season, they still have high goals and hope to accomplish what they set out to achieve.

“As a team we want to win out in preseason and conference, make the Final Four and win a national championship,” team captain Crone said. “Maybe fourth time is the charm.”