Chemistry key for volleyball success

USC had the number one overall recruiting class and will return six players this season. The team finished with a 15-15 record last season. (Amanda Chou | Daily Trojan)

When a Big Ten coach told women’s volleyball Head Coach Brad Keller that USC and UCLA were leaving the Pac-12, he didn’t believe it.

“I had no clue, and I didn’t believe him too,” said Keller in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “He told me I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. You got to be kidding me.’”

The move came out of nowhere and, ironically, while Keller was in Big Ten country recruiting. He’s in full support of the move, one he called “really exciting” that has already made a “significant change” in recruiting. 

But for now, Keller’s main focus is turning around a program that hasn’t won 20 games in a season since 2018. This year’s team might be the one to break that streak. 

“I’m excited about this team because of how into it they are and how bought in they are to each other and just the enthusiasm,” he said. “And there’s a lot on the table here that’s really, really positive.”

Keller expects this year’s team to be “very athletic” with the task of learning how to “pass and touch the ball well.” 

Senior Skylar Fields and sophomore Mia Tuaniga are expected to be “dynamic players.” Senior opposite hitter Emilia Weske is coming off another strong season. Players have been putting in extra work together since the spring semester too, building strong chemistry they lacked last season, according to Weske. 

But the Trojans will look a lot different this year compared to last. 

Eleven out of 17 players are new to USC, including the nation’s top recruiting class and two graduate transfers. Four of the six statistical leaders from last season — Brooke Botkin, Brooklyn Schirmer, Candice Denny and Sabrina Smith — are all gone. 

With all the new faces and lost contributors, it begs the question: Where’s all this excitement coming from? 

“On and off the court, just the enthusiasm and the love for this and the buy-in and just the genuine smiles of ‘you want to be here 24/7’ type of thing is what you want to have … as a coach for your athletes,” Keller said. “They want to be around each other.” 

The improved chemistry of this year’s team is the biggest difference for Weske so far.

Weske said playing during the pandemic with restrictions and not being able to socialize with teammates off the court “definitely had an effect on our game.” 

There’s already been a major shift in the camaraderie of the team behind the new additions. 

“Overall, we’re a younger team now, a much younger team, and I think you can feel that everyone’s full of energy,” she said. 

There’s still work to be done on the court though. USC started practice just last Monday with its season debut set for Aug. 26 against Colgate. 

An emphasis for Keller this season will be ensuring the Trojans come out to a strong start, something he said last season was a learning lesson. 

USC began the first month last year with a 5-6 record, seemingly playing catch up the rest of the schedule. As the Trojans notched wins late into the season, it became too little, too late. 

Paying attention to the smaller details may be the difference maker in a better start, Keller said.

“I always tell my team about the low hanging fruit or the things that are easy that you need to take care of and really be able to touch the ball well and take care of the easy points or the easy transitions or the easy situations where you are on top of it,” he said. “So I think a lot of attention to those simpler things because those are easy points and you have to capitalize on those easy points.” 

In a job that has become “180 [degrees] different” because of the transfer portal and NIL, the goal is still the same for the third-year head coach.

It’s championship or bust. 

“The goal is going to be always competing for national championships. We clearly need to get back into the playoffs, and we clearly need to, once we get back in playoffs, make deep runs,” Keller said. “We just got to get there.”

USC’s quest for its sixth national championship begins on Aug. 26.