2021 USC Men's Volleyball Outlook: Trojans Aim To Rebound With Experienced Roster
A USC men's volleyball fan remembering last year's abbreviated Trojan season might say that the 2021 squad gets a sort-of "2020 do-over," with much of the roster returning, now more experienced and fully capable of rebounding from 2020's disappointing campaign.
A USC team that last year skewed young (one senior and 15 underclassmen) and posted a 5-14 overall record (1-6 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) before coronavirus issues ended the season with 6 regular season matches to play now is a more veteran squad with tested starters returning at 4 positions. In fact, 14 of Troy's 20 players who saw action in 2020 are back. There are 9 upperclassmen. They'll welcome 6 newcomers to the program, forming a talented 21-player roster.
However, a lack of adequate training time leading up to the start of the 2021 season could be an issue. Health and safety restrictions related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic limited USC to just two weeks of workouts in early December 2020 and then only a few more weeks of drills and practice in January before the Trojans will hit the court on Feb. 13 at UCLA (Troy's first 3 scheduled matches were postponed because team activities were paused on Jan. 22 following a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Trojan program).
Sixth-year head coach Jeff Nygaard is counting on his team's experience to get over this hurdle.
"Not being able to practice and compete as we normally would prior to starting a season is challenging, so we know it is going to take some time to get into a flow," said Nygaard. "But, through all this, our players have shown an incredible love for the game and desire to play. They are fired up and hungrier than ever.
"We have most of our key players back from last year and they are more seasoned. They have bought into our vision and approach. It should be a fun year."
Nygaard also likes the fact that he has a tall team, with 13 Trojans standing 6-6 or taller.
"We are big and physical," he said. "We are now an above-the-net volleyball team."
Nygaard will call on the leadership of his 3 seniors to help the Trojans maintain the success of a program that has won 6 national championships, played in 15 NCAA tourneys and produced 20 Olympians, 34 All-American first teamers and 7 College Players of the Year.
USC's 2021 seniors are:
--6-7 middle blocker Vecas Lewin, who started 12 times in 2020 and hit .459 with 88 kills and had a squad-high 28 blocks. He competed as a senior last spring, but took advantage of an NCAA ruling that allowed all 2020 spring athletes nationally to regain their season of eligibility because the coronavirus shut down the season prior to any NCAA spring championships.
--Chris Hall, a 6-2 setter, who has 45 starts during the past three seasons, with 1,793 career assists. He started USC's first 9 matches of 2020, getting a team-best 334 assists with 62 digs, before an injury sidelined him the rest of the way.
--5-11 libero Cole Paxson, who has started 37 times at Troy and has 287 career digs. Last spring, he led USC with 136 digs.
Four other Trojans gained significant experience in last year's shortened season.
Junior Brandon Browning, a 6-4 outside hitter, started 17 matches in 2020, getting 149 kills (hitting .238) and 72 digs. Another outside hitter, 6-3 sophomore Adam Flood, had 12 starts last spring and was named to the MPSF All-Freshman team after hitting .279 with 106 kills and 54 digs. Versatile 6-8 junior Billy Fauntleroy had 7 starts at outside hitter and 5 at opposite hitter in 2020, leading the Trojans with 167 kills (hitting .235) and 14 aces to go along with 50 digs. Jameson McKibbin, a 6-3 junior setter who has 4 relatives who played volleyball at USC, stepped in when Hall went out last year and he started 6 times, getting 249 assists.
Looking to break into the mix at outside hitter are juniors Clay Dickinson, who at 6-8 can also play opposite, and 6-7 Noah Franklin. Between them, they have appeared in 33 career matches (with 2 starts).
Sophomore opposite hitter Simon Gallas, a member of Germany's Youth National Team, had 4 starts in 2020. At 6-8, he can also play outside hitter.
Three players, who appeared in just 14 matches combined last year, are aiming to get into the playing rotation at middle blocker. There is 6-8 junior Liam Schroeder, who started 3 times in 2020 and hit .516, and a pair of sophomores: 6-6 Lucas Frassrand (he hit .442 in 2020 and had 4 starts) and 6-8 Max Beck (a back injury slowed him through much of 2020). Frassrand might also compete at opposite hitter.
Waiting in the wings at libero are 6-3 soph George Dyer, who saw action in 11 matches last spring, primarily as a serving specialist, and 6-1 redshirt freshman Gus Acord, who did not see action in 2020.
USC's new faces hope to make an immediate impression.
There is 6-8 sophomore middle blocker Danny Sutton Farrell, who transferred to USC after spending last season at Loyola Chicago. He hit .320 in 7 early-season matches for the Ramblers last year before being limited by an injury.
Then there are 3 true freshmen outside hitters who each made the 2020 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 list: 6-7 Peter Brown of New Trier High in Winnetka (Ill.), 6-8 Jack Deuchar of Punahou School in Honolulu (Hi.), who helped Punahou to 3 state titles, and 6-1 Jackson Reed of Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego (Calif.). Two other first-year freshmen are Kyle Paulson, a 6-6 setter-opposite hitter from Millikan High in Long Beach (Calif.), and Christian Thomas, a 6-7 middle blocker from Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach (Calif.).
The key losses from the 2020 roster are 3-year starting middle blocker Sam Lewis, who at 6-10 was the second tallest Trojan in history, and 6-9 Kyle Gear, who started much of the past 3 seasons at middle blocker or opposite hitter. A .370 career hitter with 320 kills and 184 blocks, Lewis hit .463 in 2020, with 74 kills and 27 blocks. Gear had a .335 career hitting percentage with 44 starts. Last year, he had 131 kills while hitting .259 and added 23 blocks, 42 digs and 11 aces.
>USC's assistant coaching staff is the same as 2020. Gary Sato has been on Nygaard's staff since the start, while Rory Prager begins his second season at Troy. Virginia Pham is USC's new technical coordinator.
To better deal with the continuing pandemic, the Trojans will play a shortened schedule in 2021 that includes only MPSF opponents, with 3 meetings against each foe.