Volleyball trounces trio of opponents in season opener

Sinead Chang | Daily Trojan

The USC women’s volleyball team won the 2018 Trojan Invitational on Saturday night with three straight victories against No. 4  Kentucky, Northern Iowa and No. 14 Creighton, as new head coach Brent Crouch earned his first three wins as a Trojan.

Crouch was previously the head coach at Portland, where he led the Pilots from a winless season to their best season in 25 years and earned the 2016 West Coast Conference Coach of the Year. He now has the tough task of replacing ex-coach Mick Haley. Even more challenging is that the Trojans are a very young team, with only three seniors on the roster.

“I have wanted to coach, and teach, and compete at the absolute highest level I can, and USC has the same vision,” Crouch said in a press release. “So, the pressure of winning and getting to Final Fours and winning the whole deal is something that I was already putting on myself. USC is ambitious and so am I, so that was a nice fit.”

Crouch and the Trojans faced an immediate challenge in the opener against Kentucky. The first set saw 14 ties, but Kentucky finished with a 3-0 run to win 25-22. It appeared as if USC’s inexperience was beginning to show when her team fell behind 7-0 in the second set, but sophomore outside hitter Brooke Botkin  and junior outside hitters Emily Baptista and Khalia Lanier combined for 20 kills to win 25-22 and even the match.

In her first game after transferring from University of the Pacific, Baptista looked sharp with five more kills in the third set as USC narrowly won 25-23. She then recorded six more kills in the final frame as USC and Kentucky went back and forth before the Trojans pulled away to win 29-27. Botkin finished with a game-high 18 kills, while freshman setter Raquel Lázaro, a Spanish native, had an outstanding debut with 55 assists.

With momentum gained from the upset against the Wildcats, USC was clearly much more confident and aggressive from the onset against Northern Iowa. Though each set was close (27-25, 25-23, 25-20), USC looked poised throughout and didn’t succumb to the pressure, a promising sign for Crouch to build upon. Lanier posted her first double-double of the year with 11 kills and 10 digs, while Botkin contributed eight kills. Junior middle blocker Madison Murtagh also had a career high of seven kills and one block.

The final game against Creighton was a long one, with the Trojans pulling out an 18-16 win in the fifth frame to take home the championship. USC survived 3 straight points in the opening set before coming out on top after a Creighton attack error. However, a Trojan attack error set up Creighton to take the second set 25-23. Botkin continued her dominant play with seven kills to fend off a late push by the Blue Jays, who trailed 20-14 midway, to win the third set, 25-22. The back-and-forth continued in the fourth set before Creighton rattled off 5 straight points to give themselves some distance and eventually force a final game. USC had 3 match point chances before Lanier delivered a pair of consecutive kills to seal the victory.

Lázaro recorded her first double-double with 53 assists and 22 digs, while Botkin finished with 25 kills and 12 digs. USC and Creighton hit just .219 and .184, respectively.

USC (3-0) now travels to the Sunshine State for the Bubly Water Invitational in Gainesville, Fla., where the Trojans will play the tournament-host Florida Gators on Friday evening. They will finish out the tournament by facing UCF and Louisville.