NCAA Women's Volleyball Champions Look To Defend Title In 2003

Aug. 15, 2003

Can they do it again?

That's the question for the defending NCAA champion USC women's volleyball team in 2003.

It is a question the Women of Troy have not had to answer in more than 20 years after capturing their last national championship in 1981 - the first-ever NCAA title awarded. Now, following one of the greatest seasons in the history of Trojan volleyball that culminated in the program's fifth national championship, the 2003 squad will try to duplicate the effort in hopes of a repeat.

'We are facing an extremely difficult task this season,' said USC head coach Mick Haley, who enters his third season at Troy. 'Collegiate volleyball is extremely competitive and every team is going to be looking to beat us. Our players have an opportunity to make their mark and I know they're up to the challenge.'

After a disappointing end to the previous season (2001), in which the Trojans fell a game short of a second consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four, last year's squad was more determined than ever to fight their way back to the Final Four and bring home a championship. Ranked at the top of the polls by the second week of the 2002 season, the Women of Troy held on to that position for most of the year and were favored to win the title.

With a 3-1 victory over conference rival Stanford in the NCAA championship match, USC avenged its only loss of the year and completed a storybook season with a 31-1 overall record. The Women of Troy also captured their first-ever outright Pac-10 title (in 2000 USC tied with Arizona for its only other conference championship) with a 17-1 conference mark and had two players named to the AVCA All-America first team for the first time since 1997.

'I think our accomplishments last season were pretty special,' said Haley, who, with two national crowns at Texas, became only the second Division I head coach to ever win a national title at two universities (John Dunning is the other, winning at both Pacific and Stanford).

'After falling short the two years prior, our players realized what it would take to win a title and they dedicated themselves completely all of last season. They worked so hard to accomplish this and to see them get the reward was extremely special.

'We feel like we have a great team this season that is capable of defending its title. If they meet the challenge, and if the seniors bring the juniors and sophomores along, then there is no reason why this team can't hang on to its success for years to come.'

With 10 returners, including every starter, Haley hopes that the team's experience and depth will be the keys to success this season.

The Women of Troy's biggest challenge this season will be replacing part-time starting opposite hitter and 2002 team captain Lauren Killian, part-time starting setter Tracy Lindquist and defensive specialist Julie Mariani. These three players not only contributed their skill on the court, but also drove the team with their leadership and enthusiasm.

'There were many things that made last year so good, but, without a doubt, the biggest factor was our great senior leadership,' said Haley. 'You have to give them credit for keeping everybody focused. They worked so hard for four years and led by example to get this team to the top.'

Having to replace their leadership will be difficult, but the responsibility has been passed on to two very capable players. Senior outside hitter April Ross (Newport Beach, Calif.) and junior middle blocker Emily Adams (Phoenix, Ariz.) were selected as team co-captains for the 2003 season.

'April and Emily are great leaders and they command respect from the team, both on and off the volleyball court,' said Haley. 'I know that everyone on this team will follow the two captains and, as long as they're united, we will function nicely as a team.'

Lindquist's departure leaves a gap at the setter's position. As one of the top setters in USC history (her 2,766 career assists rank fourth among USC records), Lindquist played an integral role in the success of the Trojans' 6-2 system. Along with teammate and current junior Toni Anderson (Yorba Linda, Calif.), the two setters finished second nationally with 16.29 assists per game. But without Lindquist the question remains whether the Trojans will revert back to a 5-1 system or incorporate a freshman to continue running a 6-2.

'We may have to change the makeup of the team and utilize a freshman setter if we choose to continue playing our 6-2 system,' said Haley, who enters his 27th season as a head coach with an 829-193-1 (.811) career record. 'Or we may decide to go back to playing a 5-1 so we can utilize our veteran lineup.

'At the start of the season there will be a lot of questions we are going to have to work through, but our staff and players are all extremely excited about the possibilities. There is a real sense of pride in our program and these players are eager to continue the momentum.'

SENIORS

Three years ago, five standout freshmen walked on to the USC campus for the first time with one common goal - to win a national championship. They possessed just as much confidence as they did talent, and together, helped rebuild Women of Troy volleyball into a national contender.

These five players - Katie Olsovsky (Torrance, Calif.), Nicole Davis (Stockton, Calif.), Kelli Lantz (Bakersfield, Calif.), Anderson and Ross - are now in their final season and, having already made a dramatic impact on the USC record books, they are looking for one more title to add to their credits.

As a three-year starter and this year's team co-captain, the 6-foot-1 Ross will leave USC as one of its all-time greatest players. To add to her long list of accolades, last season she earned her first AVCA All-America first team honor and third consecutive All-Pac-10 first team honor, in addition to being named NCAA West Region Tournament MVP and NCAA Championship All-Tournament. She led the team with an average of 3.61 kills, 0.43 service aces (both marks rank third among USC single season records) and 4.41 points per game, in addition to finishing second on the team in digs (3.0 dpg) and fourth in blocks (0.64 bpg).

'April is special and there is no one with whom you can compare her,' said Haley. 'She knows the game and knows how to play it best. I can easily say that she has contributed to every winning effort on this team over the past three years.

'April is certainly one of the all-time great collegiate volleyball players when you consider her winning percentage, her consistency and the contributions she has made in just three years.'

Ross currently ranks among USC's top 10 career leaders in kills per game (3.75), attacks (2855), service aces (102), service aces per game (0.25), digs (940) and digs per game (3.03).

Joining Ross as one of the Women of Troy's top all-time players is Olsovsky, a three-year starting middle blocker and three-time All-Pac-10 first team pick. The 6-foot-3 Olsovsky was named to the AVCA All-Pacific Region honorable mention team last season and earned NCAA Championship All-Tournament accolades. She finished second on the team (fourth in the Pac-10) in blocks per game (1.22), third in service aces (0.21 sapg), fourth in kills (2.65 kpg) and points (3.62 ppg), and had a .358 attack percentage. She currently tops USC's record list with a .367 career attack percentage and will likely finish her career among the top 5 in solo blocks, block assists, total blocks and blocks per game.

'Katie started off her career at USC on fire and has not let up since,' said Haley. 'In just three years she has set numerous records, become even more athletic, maintained her consistency and has accounted for a lot of important wins for us. She can hit all three positions and has proven to be a dominating blocker. We are going to ask for even more from her this year because she is capable of producing many more great performances.'

Anderson may be one of the best setters in collegiate volleyball, but many of her individual contributions have gone unnoticed due to the Trojans' 6-2 system. Sharing setting duties with Lindquist for the past three years, Anderson has helped drive the Women of Troy to success. The two sacrificed individual accolades for the benefit of the team, but Haley hopes that people take notice of Anderson's talent this season.

'Toni will be our premier setter this year, whether or not we continue to run a 6-2,' said Haley, who himself was a setter at Ball State ('65). 'Even when sharing the position, she has had the ability to take over matches and we look forward to seeing that a lot more this season. She has all the skill, experience and training necessary to really dominate at her position. I believe she is the top setter in the country.'

The 5-foot-10 Anderson averaged 8.42 assists per game in 2002 to rank ninth in the Pac-10 and was named to the All-Pac-10 honorable mention team.

The 2002 season marked the introduction of the libero position to women's collegiate volleyball and the 5-foot-6 Davis was the first USC player to adopt the role. Not only did Davis find great success in her new position, averaging 3.44 digs per game, she also played a huge role in USC's championship victory over Stanford.

'Nicole did not let a thing get past her in the backcourt that afternoon,' said Haley, recalling the NCAA final match against the Cardinal. 'I think she certainly earned respect across the country. In my opinion, she's the best there is at her position collegiately.

'We've sacrificed Nicole's serving in order to keep her at the libero position. This season we will certainly challenge her to continue being as tenacious as she has been on the court, while continuing to learn the game and her role.'

At 6-foot-3, Lantz has seen limited playing time in her first three seasons. Acting as a primary reserve at middle blocker, she made nine appearances last season and had a .333 attack percentage.

'Kelli is a player who has worked so hard for the past three years and has made all the small contributions that are so important to a team's success,' said Haley. 'She had a phenomenal spring and we moved her to outside hitter because we would like to see her play an active role as a senior. She gives so much to her team and I'm hoping she can be a real surprise this year.'

JUNIORS

Even with such a dominating class of seniors, it is impossible to dismiss the outstanding contributions made to this team by the three juniors - outside hitters Keao Burdine (Pico Rivera, Calif.) and Alicia Robinson (Phoenix, Ariz.), plus Adams.

Co-captain Adams took collegiate volleyball by surprise last season when she dominated the competition at middle blocker in just her first season as a starter. She earned AVCA All-America first team honors, All-Pac-10 first team honors and was named one of four Honda Award volleyball finalists. She finished third nationally (second in the Pac-10) with a .423 attack percentage and third in the Pac-10 in blocks per game (1.38). Her .423 hitting mark also ranks second among USC all-time single season leaders and her 42 solo blocks ranks fifth.

'Emily earned a great deal of respect from coaches and players across this country with her performance last season,' said Haley. 'No one really realized how good she was, but part of the reason she was so good as a sophomore is because she worked so hard as a freshman reserve. Emily is the kind of player who always knows that she can do better and is always pushing herself. I'm looking forward to see her increase her level of play this season, while continuing to provide a positive influence for the team.'

Now Adams is one year older, one year wiser and one inch taller. She was recently measured at 6-foot-6, making her the tallest athlete to ever play for the Women of Troy.

Like Anderson, Burdine is the type of player who has flown under the radar her first two seasons, but her contributions are unmatched. Next to Ross, she is the most powerful force for the Women of Troy at the outside hitter position. Last season, the 6-foot-1 Burdine finished second on the team in kills (3.28 kpg) and service aces (0.28 sapg), and finished third in digs (2.98 dpg) and points (3.81 ppg). She earned her first All-Pac-10 first team honor and was selected to the AVCA All-Pacific Region honorable mention team. Despite sometimes being overlooked, Burdine made her presence known when she combined for 3.9 kills, 0.5 aces, 3.0 digs and 4.6 points per game in the final two rounds of the NCAA Tournament to be named NCAA Championship MVP (the third USC player to ever earn the honor).

'It was such a fantastic way for Keao to finish off the season and we were so proud of her,' said Haley. 'She was already such a great player when she came in and she has continued to get better every day that she's been here at USC. Keao is so important to our success and I'm hoping that she can continue to push herself to be the best at her position on a regular basis.'

At 6-foot-2, Robinson is the tallest outside hitter in the Women of Troy lineup as she enters her third season as a starter. Her powerful swing is hard to match, but last season she struggled with inconsistency largely due to foot injuries. She averaged 2.28 kills and 0.54 blocks per game but hit at a .181 clip in 2002. Robinson underwent foot surgery in the spring and is looking to be back to full strength at the start of the season.

'Alicia had a difficult time last season because she was really fighting through a lot of pain,' said Haley. 'But her maturity has always been exceptional and it contributed greatly to the success of the team last year. I am anxious to see a new and improved version of Alicia this season because I don't think we've seen the best of her. She has worked very hard this spring and I know she will be a key factor on this team.'

SOPHOMORES

Middle blockers Bibiana Candelas (Torre�n, Mexico) and Staci Venski (California City, Calif.) make up the Women of Troy's small but dynamic sophomore class.

Last season, many considered Candelas the 'secret weapon' on an already deep and talented USC squad. After missing the first two weeks of the season while competing with the Mexican national team, Candelas was not cleared to start competing until late October, missing the majority of the regular season. But the 6-foot-5 standout, who is still one of the four tallest players ever to play at USC, joined the squad in time to provide a much-needed spark for the Women of Troy as they headed into the NCAA Tournament.

'Having Bibiana finally become eligible midseason ended up being a great asset to our success,' said Haley. 'She gave us a little extra boost and it became a real advantage. While other teams did not seem to have added energy at the end, we were able to rely on her.'

Candelas only played 15 matches, but averaged 2.0 kills, 0.43 blocks and 2.28 points per game, in addition to a .352 attack percentage.

'Bibiana is an outstanding player who has the ability to take over matches,' said Haley. 'Last year she may have held back a little as she was getting accustomed to college volleyball, but I know that if she continues to improve her blocking, she will dominate at her position.'

Also at middle blocker, the 6-foot-3 Venski saw limited playing time last season due to shoulder injuries. She underwent shoulder surgery during the spring and is expected to be an active reserve at middle blocker this season.

'I think Staci is one of the best-kept secrets in collegiate volleyball because she has such tremendous physical ability and has not yet had the chance to showcase that,' said Haley. 'She corrected her shoulder problems and has worked hard to rehabilitate in the offseason. We're expecting to use her as a primary reserve at either the outside hitter or middle blocker positions once we see where everyone matches up.'

FRESHMEN

The 2003 incoming freshman class will be led by 5-foot-9 setter Kimi Freeburg (New Castle, Ind.) and 5-foot-5 defensive specialist/libero Debora Seilhamer (Ponce, Puerto Rico).

Freeburg prepped at New Castle High where she led her Munciana club volleyball team to a top 20 ranking the past four years (2000-2003). As a senior, she made the Student Sports All-America honorable mention team and was named the Muncie Star East Central Indiana Player of the Year.

'Kimi is a winner and that's the type of player we need to fill the gap left by Tracy Lindquist,' said Haley. 'She will be facing a very difficult task, but Kimi has the type of personality that embraces challenges. I think she will be an exceptional leader and fit in well in our system.'

Seilhamer prepped at Colegio Ponce�o in Puerto Rico (along with teammate Candelas). She was one of the school's top athletes, competing in volleyball, basketball, softball and track and field. Her prep experience was limited but she has trained with the best players in Puerto Rico on both the national team and club volleyball levels.

'Debora is just a phenomenal athlete and we think she will become an exceptional libero with some experience,' said Haley. 'She will also be a very versatile player for us. We may use her arm and allow her to serve and play in the back row, or we may have her come off the bench to give Nicole Davis a break at times.'

In addition to Freeburg and Seilhamer, the Women of Troy will also welcome two freshman walk-ons this season: 5-foot-7 defensive specialist Anne Montgomery (Menlo Park, Calif.) and 6-foot-0 setter Alex Dunphy (Malibu, Calif.). Despite entering their first season, Montgomery and Dunphy both are used to being around collegiate athletics. Montgomery is the daughter of Stanford head men's basketball coach Mike Montgomery, while Dunphy is the daughter of Pepperdine men's volleyball head coach Marv Dunphy.

Both players enjoyed successful prep careers. Montgomery helped lead St. Francis High to the California Central State Division I Championship in 2000, 2001 and 2002, while Dunphy led Harvard-Westlake High to the CIF Division III Championship as a sophomore and junior (2000, 2001). Dunphy was also selected to the Division III All-CIF first team and named the Los Angeles Daily News Player of the Year as a senior.

THE SCHEDULE

The Women of Troy open the 2003 season at the NACWAA State Farm Volleyball Classic in Honolulu, Hawai'i, on Aug. 22-23. There, the Trojans will start the year with a rematch of last year's NCAA semifinal when they take on a highly-ranked Florida team, then face either Hawai'i (also a 2002 NCAA Final Four team) or Kansas State in the tournament championship.

'The schedule this season will be a little bit harder on us because we have to come right out of the gates and play well,' said Haley, whose schedule last season was rated as one of the toughest in the nation. 'In just the first two weeks we will likely have meetings with three teams that will probably be ranked in the top 10.'

Following the early trip to Hawai'i, the Trojans return home to host the Holiday Inns of the Greater Los Angeles Area Volleyball Tournament, on Sept. 29-30. The round-robin tournament will feature Northern Iowa, Ball State and South Carolina. USC will squeeze in a match-up with crosstown foe Pepperdine on Sept. 3, then travel to College Station, Texas, for the final tournament of the nonconference season where the Women of Troy will faces Texas A&M, Centenary and Southwest Missouri State.

The Pac-10 conference season begins Sept. 19 when the Trojans face the UCLA Bruins in the first of two match-ups of this crosstown rivalry.

'We know that this year will be incredibly tough because all of our opponents will be out to get us,' said Haley. 'We face unbelievable competition when you factor in the strength of the Pac-10 and our nonconference opponents, but the competition is fantastic.

'Winning the national championship is an amazing feat and to repeat takes an exceptional effort. This is the ultimate goal every season and we know we'll have to work twice as hard this time.'

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