Third-Ranked Volleyball Prepped For Title Run In 2002

Aug. 22, 2002

Who would you rather face, 6-foot-3 returning All-American middle blocker Katie Olsovsky or 6-foot-1 All-American outside hitter April Ross?

Most opponents would say... Neither!

Now add Pac-10 All-Freshman returnees Keao Burdine and Alicia Robinson, middle blockers Emily Adams at 6-foot-5 and Kelli Lantz at 6-foot-3, opposite hitter Lauren Killian and incoming middle blockers Bibiana Candelas and Staci Venski, who measure 6-5 and 6-3, respectively.

What do you think opponents would say now?

The 2002 USC women's volleyball lineup strikes fear in most who just hear the names, let alone read their accomplishments or witness their skill. It is safe to say that this season the Women of Troy are stacked with talent and offensive firepower, but now it is time to see what they can do. USC is ranked No. 3 in both the AVCA and Volleyball magazine preseason polls.

'There is no doubt that we have an abundance of talent and if everybody steps up their game another notch, we should be an even better team than last year,' said second-year head coach Mick Haley, formerly the head coach of the U.S. Women's National Team (1997-2000). 'This is definitely a more experienced and more mature team.'

Haley, who boasts an .806 (798-192-1) career win percentage and a 166-12 (.932) all-time conference mark, officially took the reigns of the USC program last season (2001) and found his inaugural year to be bittersweet. Fielding one of the most talented teams in Women of Troy history, USC volleyball dominated competition during the regular season.

The Trojans defeated ranked opponents such as Hawai'I, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, Arizona, Pepperdine, and even eventual national champion Stanford (3-1 in their first meeting in Los Angeles), but dropped a couple of matches on the road to finish one win short of a consecutive conference title.

But USC had its sights set on a national title and breezed through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament not losing a single game.

'I like to say that we were an ankle away from a return to the Final Four,' said Haley, who watched his squad fall to Arizona, 3-2, in the NCAA Regional Final after Ross went down with an ankle injury in the match's second game.

The 2001 Women of Troy finished the season with a 25-4 overall record, a second-place finish in the Pac-10 (16-2) and a No. 5 AVCA final ranking.

This season, USC returns five-of-six starters and 11 total letterwinners. The only players lost were starting middle blocker Jennifer Pahl, who graduated, and walk-on defensive specialist Jaime Carroll.

Pahl finished her career at Troy leading the team in attack percentage (.397) and finished second in blocks (113) and blocks per game (1.16) as a senior. The three-time all-conference honoree helped lead USC to four-consecutive NCAA appearances. She finished her career ranked No. 2 in career attack percentage (.353) and No. 8 in career blocks per game (1.05) at Troy.

Opponents may have breathed a sign of relief at the end of the 2001 season when they realized that they no longer had to face the unexpected quick middle attacks from Pahl, who was a 2000 AVCA second team All-American, but Haley and his coaching staff went out and recruited two middle blockers to take Pahl's place.

'Stacy Venski was probably the top recruit in Southern California even though she did not get the credit for it since she did not play high school volleyball,' said Haley, who in his 25 years as a collegiate head coach has coached more than 25 All-Americans and 68 all-conference honorees. 'Then we got the best international player out there in Bibiana Candelas. Though they may be atypical players, I think this class ranks right up there with our sophomores and juniors (who were dubbed the No. 1 recruiting classes of 2000 and 2001).'

Venski (California City, Calif.) is a 2002 graduate of Calabasas (Calif.) High but only played high school volleyball as a freshman and sophomore at Mojave (Calif.) High. Since then, she trained with the 2000 USA Youth National Team, the 2001 USA Junior National Team and competed with the USA Women's Junior National Team this summer. She is an extremely quick player who can hit left, right and block middle.

'Stacy has increased her vertical jump to 10-7 this summer and I think that she is physically stronger than she has ever been in her life,' said Haley. 'She had an excellent summer of training and I'm looking forward to matching her up with the rest of our team.'

Candelas, a standout blocker on the Mexican National Team who hails from Torre�n, Mexico, comes to Troy with a wealth of experience on the international level. A six-year member of Mexico's team, she has earned various MVP and blocking honors at tournaments such as NORCECA and the PanAmerica Cup. She will provide great height to the USC lineup, whose hitters and blockers will average 6-foot-3 this season.

'Even though she is just a freshman, Bibiana is such an experienced player and I think the rest of the team will benefit from that,' said Haley. 'She is very mobile at the net and possesses a great advantage with her height and frame.

'We have had three especially good recruiting classes over the last three years and now we have to figure out how to put this all together. We can not settle for being okay at every position because we have the talent to be great at every position. As long as we can take advantage of everyone's abilities, then I know we'll accomplish great things.'

It is a problem most coaches would love to have.

Honors candidates Olsovsky (Torrance, Calif.) and Ross (Newport Beach, Calif.) return for their third season with the Women of Troy. These two standouts have made major contributions to the team in their first two years at USC - first leading the Trojans to the Final Four in 2000 and then last season's run to the Elite Eight. Both earned All-Pac-10 first team honors last season.

2001 was a breakout year for Olsovsky, who finished the year fourth in the Pac-10 in average blocks (1.28 bpg) and currently ranks fifth among USC career block record holders (1.23 bpg). She was named AVCA second team All-American.

Ross, a proven all-around valuable player for the Women of Troy, had a typical season in 2002, that is if 'typical' means leading the team in kills (3.98 kpg), digs (3.04 dpg) and points (4.52 ppg). But this is typical for Ross, who has been a steady driving force for the Women of Troy since first arriving on campus. She made the 2001 Volleyball magazine All-American third team.

'Katie and April are true All-Americans and they give us wonderful options on the court,' said Haley. 'And, as if they were not already big threats at their positions, they have also been training hard to become more versatile. Katie is capable of playing any of the three positions in the front row, while April, who already has played at hitter or blocker, can also set.

'We actually have a lot of players who can play several positions this year. Ross spent time this summer playing at setter, Olsovsky is a great attacker as well as blocker, and Venski, Candelas and Adams can also play outside.'

So if opponents thought they had the USC volleyball system already worked out, then they can expect to see some changes.

'The key is that there will be a lot of changes in our system until we find something that we are comfortable with,' said Haley. 'We may come out with the same lineup as last season, but the benefit is that we have options and I will definitely take advantage of that.'

Lantz (Bakersfield, Calif.), also a returning junior, is likely to see much more playing time this season as players and coaches experiment with these new positions. She averaged 0.87 blocks per game in 2001, ranking third on the team and second among returners despite only playing 39 games in 24 matches.

'Kelli and her third-year teammates are really the core of the team,' said Haley. 'Though she has not logged a lot of time on the court over the last two seasons, she has a ton of experience because she has stepped in in critical matches and come through big.'

The coaching staff is also expecting major contributions from sophomores Robinson, Burdine and Adams, who gained valuable experience as freshmen.

Robinson (Phoenix, Ariz.), a 2002 Pac-10 All-Freshman selection, displayed great strength and explosiveness in her first year at outside hitter. She averaged 2.80 kills and 3.17 points per game, including a season-high 20 kills and 24.0 points against UCLA when she led the team to a 3-2 comeback victory over the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion.

'Alicia was just knocking the cover off the ball this summer with the National A2 Team in Salt Lake City,' said Haley. 'The coaches were very impressed with her and I really think that she is going to be the one who will make the greatest strides this year. She will be exciting to watch.'

Also at outside hitter, Burdine (La Habra, Calif.) captured a lot of attention in her first season. Named to the All-Pac-10 honorable mention team and Pac-10 All-Freshman team, she paced then-sophomore Ross with 3.31 kill, 2.54 digs and 3.77 points per game.

'Keao not only trained indoor this summer, but she also competed on the beach internationally with UCLA's Chrissie Zartman,' said Haley. 'All the experience she gained will be a great benefit to her and she will again be one of our go-to players.'

In the middle, Trojan fans can expect to see a lot more of the second-year Adams (Phoenix, Ariz.). Though she played off the bench in 2001, at 6-foot-5 Adams was a dominating presence for the Women of Troy. Playing just 24 games, she averaged 1.88 kills, 0.58 blocks and a .434 attack percentage, proving she is capable of being a great attacker as well as blocker.

'Barring April's injury, we still were in great position to go to the Final Four last season, but we were also in a difficult situation because of our very young lineup,' said Haley. 'The fact that we did not pull that off was extremely disappointing to our three freshmen - Alicia, Keao and Emily. They really want the opportunity to correct that this season.'

USC's return to the NCAA Championships will also depend largely on the contributions of the 2002 senior class. This group, unlike many, not only possesses great leadership skills, but is also made up of returning starters and major contributors for the Women of Troy.

The 6-foot-1 Killian (Los Angeles, Calif.), a second-year team captain, provides leadership and an exceptional right-side attack for the Trojans. Playing in nearly every match last season, she averaged 1.65 kills, 0.70 blocks and a .309 hitting percentage.

'Lauren did a wonderful job last year as a true team leader,' said Haley. 'Now in her final season, she has one more opportunity to lead this squad to a national championship, just as her father (Don) did with the USC men's team in 1977.'

Senior setter Tracy Lindquist (Fountain Valley, Calif.) is the type of player every coach wants on a team. An exceptional on-court leader, Lindquist played in every game last season. She split time at setter, where she averaged 5.75 assists per game, and rotated into the backrow, where she collected 2.28 digs per game. But her talent surpasses the indoor game as she has excelled on the beach since she was a teenager. This summer, Lindquist and beach partner Zartman (UCLA) won the gold medal at the first-ever World University Beach Volleyball Championships in Guadeloupe of the French Antilles.

'Tracy has had a banner year and has done wonderful things this summer,' said Haley. 'She will always be on the court for us, whether it is at setter, libero or defensive specialist. She is a player who is always ready to go, a hard worker and a senior who knows how to win.'

In 2001, USC ran a 6-2 system, which had Lindquist and Toni Anderson (Yorba Linda, Calif.) splitting time at setter. Thanks to their combined efforts, the Women of Troy led the Pac-10 in team assists with a 15.77 per game average.

This season, Anderson enters her third year as the primary starting setter for the Trojans. In 2001 she averaged 8.27 assists per game and, despite splitting time on the court, she finished fourth in the Pac-10 in assists. The junior is widely regarded as one of the top setters in the conference.

'Toni is really a pivotal player on our team and the one who greatly affects the way our team runs,' said Haley. 'If she comes on the way I hope she will, she can really take us to the next level this year.'

Last, but definitely not least, it is the Trojans' three defensive specialists who will face the biggest changes this season.

Intended to be used as a designated ball-control specialist, the introduction of the libero position to women's collegiate volleyball this season will change the way the game is played and likely boost team's backrow play.

'We have been lucky the past few seasons because we have had the luxury of some very talented defensive specialists,' said Haley. 'The libero position should help a lot of teams that don't pass well, but for our three DS's it will work to be an added benefit.'

Senior Julie Mariani (Los Altos, Calif.), junior Nicole Davis (Stockton, Calif.) and redshirt freshman Kristen Anderson (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) will all contribute at this position.

Davis received the most playing time last season, appearing in all but one game throughout the season. She averaged 2.27 digs per game but made her greatest contributions at the service line where she averaged 0.30 aces per outing. Possessing a powerful jump serve, she tallied a career-high seven aces against Stanford in Los Angeles, a mark that ranks fifth among USC match records.

In her final season at Troy, Mariani has also made her marks in the record book. She currently ranks sixth all-time (0.27 sapg) among USC's service ace career record holders. Last season she averaged 0.83 digs per game.

Kristen Anderson (no relation to Toni) did not play in her first season at Troy.

'It will be a difficult decision to figure out who will be playing libero and who will substitute as the defensive specialist because they each have great strengths,' said Haley.

'Julie's enthusiasm is infectious and her effort in practice is outstanding. She has worked hard this summer and will get some additional playing time this year, while Nicole is really a player who gives us a great advantage with her serving and her backrow play. She can score a lot of points for us.'

It goes without saying that the 2002 Women of Troy are in good shape and awaiting the start of the season with much anticipation. But the start of the season will mean great challenges for the team from the very beginning.

'We play the No. 4 (Nebraska on Sept. 2) and 5-ranked (Florida on Sept. 6) teams just in the first two weeks so we will be able to see early-on what kind of shape we are in,' said Haley. 'Once we work out our kinks in the first few weeks then we will begin to concentrate on winning the conference, getting through the NCAA Regionals and getting back to the Final Four. Our goal is to get to the Final Four and give ourselves the opportunity to win.'

USC opens its 2002 schedule on the road at the Ball State Nike Classic (Aug. 31-Sept. 2) and BYU Mizuno Invitational (Sept. 5-6), before its first home match on Friday, Sept. 13 against the Cardinal & Gold Alumni. According to the early preseason polls (AVCA/Volleyball magazine), the Trojans will face five top-10 opponents (No. 1 Stanford, No. 2/4 Nebraska, No. 7/5 Florida, No. 8/6 Pepperdine, No. 6/8 Arizona) this season.

Among conference opponents, the Women of Troy are ranked No. 2 in the preseason Pac-10 coaches poll.

'I know that we are better this year, but I also expect our opponents to be better,' said Haley. 'Stanford, UCLA and Arizona will be better. We need to play every week at the top of our game.

'We can not be content with what we have been able to accomplish thus far. We are ready to compete for some time now and this team is not going to back off.'

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