The volleyball came spinning down from the opposite side of the net with the power and speed that can only come from a 6-foot-3 man. It smacked freshman setter Raquel Lázaro square in the face. The impact took her to the ground, but she quickly rolled over and stood on her feet with her usual smile, her arms wide open toward her teammates as they huddled before the next play.
At the end of a Tuesday afternoon practice in Galen Center, the USC women’s volleyball team were preparing to face Oregon State and Oregon at home later that week with a scrimmage featuring the starters against the rest of the team and some male practice players from USC’s club team. After a full day of classes and hours of practice, Lázaro was giving her teammates all she had left.
She spent six years building this resilience on the Spanish national team, competing for her native country on the Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 teams. The national team coaches first noticed Lázaro when she was 13 and invited her to see what the team was like in a camp setting. She spent the next five years living in Soria, Spain, practicing four hours a day while being a high school student.
Lázaro’s big break came when she was 16. After a player on the senior team was injured, she was called up.
“It was three weeks [of practices],” Lázaro said with eloquence. “They were so hard because practicing with the first team is a big deal.”
She got the call for the 2017 European League Championships, where she played in eight matches with the senior team. USC recruited Lázaro after associate head coach JJ Van Niel saw her film while he was an assistant coach at Utah last season.
After committing to USC, Lázaro spent the summer before freshman year playing in Spain, forcing her to only FaceTime her USC teammates and coaches from abroad. She didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until three days before the team’s picture day.
“She got here, [and] she was exhausted,” women’s volleyball head coach Brent Crouch said. “She had just been on an overnight flight from Madrid. But even with the jetlag, she was full of energy. Clearly, she was fatigued, but you could tell right away that she’s somebody that just carries a nice, natural amount of positive energy and vibes with her all the time.”
“My first impression was ‘This kid’s funny,’” said sophomore outside hitter Brooke Botkin, who has become a close friend. “She has a good personality.”
Lázaro has become hooked on sweet American cereal. Frosted Flakes is now a staple in her morning breakfast routine. She described the goodness with wide eyes and the same shy but bright smile that she displayed when pretending to pose for a photo and demanding that the photographer “get her good side.”
Her initially modest, yet humorous personality helped her to connect with her teammates in ways that even her coaching staff did not expect. But Lázaro still struggled to overcome cultural barriers, despite knowing English.
“I thought it was going to be more like Europe, but it isn’t,” Lázaro said. “It’s very different. We’re more empathic, we think [about] everyone that’s … next to us. And here people go more for themselves.”
She had to transition to a new culture, yet still remain herself.
“The most difficult part for connecting with people was I didn’t know what to talk about with them,” Lázaro said. “There have been moments where I feel like a stranger here, but others that I feel like I was back … home.”
She credits her comfort level to her teammates, who have stepped in as her family in America and look out for her as she looks out for them. Warmth naturally radiates from the smile that crinkles her eyes when she hugs her teammates on the sidelines. Being supportive is in the job description of a setter, especially for one who runs a 5-1 offense for the No. 14 team in the nation. She sets in every rotation, while blocking in the front row and digging in the back row.
“As a setter, you have to be a leader. You’re the quarterback of the team,” Botkin said. “You’re in charge of making sure the pass is good [by] being on top of those passers, and also being on top of your hitters and providing good sets.”
It can be a daunting task for an 18-year-old freshman, but Lázaro handles the tough coaching and criticism well. The tempo and plays of Crouch’s offense were new to her during training camp, but she caught up seamlessly. Lázaro has collected 815 assists this year, with a career high of 59 against Arizona State on Oct. 12.
“You never see anything from her other than just connecting and ‘Hey how’re you doing?’ and ‘I’m gonna do this’ and ‘Let’s go’ and ‘You can do it,’” Crouch said. “And it’s just all the time with everybody in every activity. It’s really astonishing how consistent she is at that.”
While leading the offense, Lázaro also has to make sure that her block is solid and consistent, and that she’s executing on back row defense. She has picked up 200 balls this season by sprawling all over the right side of the court, getting touches and making quick moves to keep it alive. Out of 19 games, Lázaro has recorded nine double-doubles.
Crouch noted that since coming to USC, her serving has improved significantly. Lázaro came in with a top-spin serve, but she developed a deadly jump float that served UCLA off the court when USC swept its rival at Galen Center on Sept. 19. Her six aces gave the Trojans the lead they needed to eventually beat the Bruins 25-8 in the second set.
“She was a big reason why we did so well against UCLA,” Crouch said.
Lázaro’s fourth Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award followed USC’s victories over Arizona and Arizona State on Oct. 12 and 14, where she led the Trojans to a .299 hitting percentage. She earned her third honors after the UCLA match and a 3-2 victory over Colorado on Sept. 23. The first two awards came back-to-back in the opening weeks of the season.
When she’s not busy making people laugh, running USC’s offense and winning awards, Lázaro spends much of her time fulfilling her student-athlete duties in the classroom. She’s used to balancing her academic and volleyball commitments. But she’s noticed that she has to read more in her USC classes than in high school, a new challenge.
“When I have to read a lot, my eyes just close. So I end up reading nothing,” Lázaro admitted, with a smile and a shrug.
While her major remains undecided, she doesn’t take her time at USC for granted. Lázaro has opened up since arriving from Spain by making new friends and trying to make the most of her international experience.
“I’m very lucky to be here,” Lázaro said.
This time, she was completely serious.