2008 Season Preview

Aug. 18, 2008

For the first time since 1999, the Women of Troy have no seniors on its roster as the USC women's volleyball team prepares for the beginning of the 2008 season. USC is coming off its fourth Final Four appearance in six years as the Women of Troy narrowly missed a shot to play for the national championship.

Two changes have been made as collegiate women's volleyball mirrors its international counterpart. Games will now be referred to as sets and games one through four will now be played to 25 points, instead of 30 points.

'The sets will be a sprint rather than an endurance contest,' said USC head coach Mick Haley. 'It might work to our advantage in being a younger team. The shorter set gives the lesser-skilled teams a chance. Sometimes a team can come out smoking against a better-skilled team if the other team hasn't prepared properly.'

The Women of Troy will have to offset the losses of key seniors like two-time All-American Asia Kaczor (5.15 kpg, 5.83 ppg in 2007), Diane Copenhagen (2.70 kpg, 3.12 dpg) and Bethany Johansen (1.04 bpg, .359 hitting percentage). The team also lost Kelli Tennant, who would have been a senior this season, but was forced to retire from college volleyball. Despite losing a large group, a combination of transfers and quality freshmen means USC should be competitive for the 2008 season.

'Losing Kelli does hurt us a bit more as far as giving us not only an experienced middle blocker, but a tremendous leader on and off the court,' said Haley. 'We have to utilize everything we have and need the sophomore class to grow this season.'USC will look to three key leaders to guide a young squad.

Junior setter Taylor Carico became USC's 29th All-American after posting solid numbers last season. Carico set a school season record with 1,597 assists (12.67 apg) while adding 125 kills (1.07 kpg) and 253 digs (2.01 dpg) with a .338 hitting percentage. She needs 1,217 assists this season to set the all-time career mark, held by Janice Mounts.Along with her abilities as a setter, Carico brings an added dimension with a powerful swing that can add to the Women of Troy's total offensive attack.'This will be the most mature Taylor you have seen,' said Haley. 'I think she has been underappreciated by the volleyball community. Either they don't like her hands or don't like this or like that. When you look around the nation, there probably isn't a more physical setter than Taylor.'

'As she continues to refine her game, her location becomes better...her choices get better, her knowledge of how to run the system and dissect the opponents gets better. As her right side blocking improves, she becomes a force in other way than setting. If she can help us defensively, there aren't a lot of setters that carry that kind of load for their teams. There is always that threat of her being able to use that left-handed attack. We don't need her to get a lot of kills, but we need that threat to be there to keep opponents awake.'

Outside hitter Jessica Gysin received a sixth year of eligibility for a medical hardship and will have two years available, giving USC a quality veteran as the team captain. Gysin finished second on the team last year behind Kaczor with 327 kills and a 3.00 kills per game average. She also had 219 digs (2.01 dpg) with 54 blocks (0.50 bpg), including 19 solo blocks.

During the team's postseason run last year, Gysin earned All-Gainesville Regional Team honors after recording 16 kills and hitting .359 against No. 13 St. John's and 15 kills with a .379 clip in the 3-0 sweep over No. 3 Texas.

'I thought Jessica really appreciated Diane's leadership last year and took that to heart,' said Haley. 'She is trying to do everything she can in her power to build on what Diane and her teammates did last year.'

After a full season as the team's starting libero, junior Alli Hillgren will be an anchor of the team's defense. She recorded 508 digs last season, the fourth-most in school history, and finished fifth among all Pac-10 Conference players for digs. She closed out the year in strong fashion with a 5.37 digs-per-game average.

'Her growth has been very encouraging,' said Haley. 'She was a great libero in high school. She came to USC and found out that you have to practice hard every day. She got a chance to work with the U.S. volleyball program and I think that really spurred her to really work hard this summer. I'm excited to see how much better on a consistent basis that she will be this season. I also know that her maturity level gives us great support as a leader. She has learned a lot about herself.'

Sophomore libero/outside hitter Geena Urango and sophomore middle blocker Zoe Garrett are both coming off campaigns that saw them receive Pac-10 All-Freshman Team honorable mention recognition.

Urango utilized her deadly jump serve and rung up 40 service aces during the season for the Women of Troy. She was second on the team with 347 digs (2.80 dpg) and showed some power on the outside as the 5-10 jumper recorded 112 kills, including a season-high 21 kills in October against Cal.

'You can't discount her from playing in the front row,' said Haley. 'She was on our left side when we beat Stanford here. She was in the front row at Washington. I think she played very hard all summer on the beach so her movement skills have increased a great deal. She is certainly the best utility player we have. Where ever I put Geena, she will play as hard as she will play and will try to win.'

Garrett saw consistent play at the net with 210 kills (1.81 kpg and a .262 hitting percentage) with 118 blocks (21 solo, 97 assisted). She made 29 starts in 32 matches and posted a season-high 17.5 blocks with eight blocks in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the five-game win over No. 25 Long Beach State.

6-4 redshirt freshman Lauren Williams (Houston, Texas/Stratford HS) will get her first experience at the Division I level this season and see action along the front row.

'We worked on Lauren's muscle development and conditioning last year,' said Haley. 'We had her play the opponent's best hitter every week so she got to try and practice a lot of different movements and techniques throughout the front row. There were days were she just killed us in practice so I would have to expect that if she could do damage to that team last year, she can do some damage this year. We will not have a high expectation for her this season as she continues to improve, but anything she gives us this year will be a bonus.'

Two players with Division I experience have transferred into the USC program for the 2008 season. Audrey Eichler (Pacific Palisades/Harvard-Westlake HS), a 6-2 middle blocker, was second with 308 kills (2.68 kpg, 0.84 bpg) last season as a freshman at Boston College.

'Audrey played all of last year and was one of the top freshmen in the ACC,' said Haley. 'I don't know if she knows what is in store because this conference is by far the most physical conference top to bottom that has ever been. She is a tenacious competitor and making the other players better will be a great asset for this team.'

6-0 junior outside hitter Emilie Stewart (Seal Beach/Los Alamitos HS) played two seasons at Fordham. She played in 58 total matches and averaged over two and a half points a game last season, but transferred to USC before the spring semester.'She gives us another player who is good at the net,' said Haley. 'We know she is a good volleyball player and understands the game. Her personality fits in well with this team.'

USC should benefit by the addition of two Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 freshmen with 5-11 setter Kendall Bateman (Manhattan Beach/Mira Costa HS) and 6-3 outside hitter Alex Jupiter (Hermosa Beach/Redondo Union HS).

Bateman was Carico's backup setter for the storied Mira Costa program. With the retirement of setter Chelsea Wilson, Bateman will now be in a battle with sophomore Mychaela Miller for the No. 2 setter position.

'We have to get Kendall trained to be able to run the show if Taylor gets hurt,' said Haley. 'We have to give her a lot of reps in practice and see if Mychaela can hold off that fight.'

Jupiter is well-known for her beach skills which should give the Women of Troy another full rotation player.

'I think Alex is special like I thought Taylor and Jessica were special in their athleticism and physical qualities,' said Haley. 'She has the whole package. She has a tireless body and a love for the game. The one thing with her is that she has not been exposed to this kind of intensity. She may well enjoy this in terms of being in this kind of environment. She is as close of a ball control person to (former All-American) April Ross as we have had and she is one of the best beach players in her age group. We think that she could develop into the real deal.'

The two other freshmen players are defensive specialist Paige Obradovich (Laguna Beach/Laguna Beach HS) and outside hitter Kati Cattaneo (Santa Barbara/Dos Pueblos HS). Obradovich is the daughter of former USC men's volleyball and long time AVP player, Steve Obradovich.

One of the challenges facing the team this season will be replacing the offensive numbers lost by last year's graduating class.

'I think it's fair to say that there is a question how we are going to score this year,' said Haley. 'Last year, the offense was Asia, Diane and Jessica, along with a committee of others. I believe that we will have to have a more balanced scoring from many players. Jessica is in the best physical condition she has been in while here. Zoe can terminate better now. We didn't put a lot on heat on her last year. We need Kimmee to generate points and stay healthy this season without question. We know Lauren has the ability to score points, we just have to figure how to get her in the lineup. We think Alex can help once she gets comfortable, but you never want to count on freshmen. You want them to play relaxed every night.'

Despite the concerns, Haley believes last year's Final Four run gave a lot of confidence to the majority of USC's players for this season. The team will need it with a schedule that opens against national powers Texas and Nebraska at the Runza/AVCA Showcase in Omaha, Nebraska, along with tough nonconference matches against Oklahoma, San Diego and Ohio State before the vaunted Pac-10 schedule.'There is no question that it's a tremendous advantage,' said Haley. 'Any time you can get your team to the Final Four and you're young, it helps immensely. What the young players don't know is how hard it was to get there. Our seniors worked so hard that the freshmen came along for the ride so to speak.'

'We have eight or nine very skilled players this year. What we have to learn to do is battle for the wins. We have to learn to maintain a consistency throughout the whole season. We have to add our new players that we have to get comfortable with and have new leaders.

USC is poised for a long run in the future, but Haley understands there might be some growing pains. However, Trojan fans can count on a lot of excitement from the women's volleyball program.

'I think the fans would want to be here every night to see the growth of this team and how they mesh as a unit,' said Haley. 'This group will be together for two years and with the players we add next year, it will give us greater depth. Everything we can do this year to try and get back to the Final Four will help us in the coming years. We need our young players to grow up as fast as possible without taking any shortcuts. If we can do that, we might have a chance to win by the end of the year.'

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