It was merely the Trojans 21st game of the season, yet head coach Mick Haley's reaction following a four-set loss to Washington Sunday night revealed all you need to know as to why this program continues to succeed.
The third-ranked Washington Huskies and our fourth-ranked Women of Troy took center stage at the Galen Center following an afternoon filled with plenty of excitement from Trojan Basketball Tip-Off. Those same positive feelings did not decline one bit for the all-important night session drawing 2,192 passionate fans from both squads.
"I've told the team as much as they hate losing, this is an opportunity an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve upon them this week," said coach Haley, whose Trojans are once again seated near the top of the national ranks.
The Women of Troy were coming off their first Pac-12 loss of the season, faltering in straight sets to the Arizona Wildcats who have only lost one home game all season. Starting the weekend off with a straight-sweep victory Friday night against WSU, the Galen Center was bursting from the scenes from first serve to the final kill.
"We need to focus on playing good volleyball, basic volleyball and dominating those volleyball skills," said senior Natalie Hagglund, the two-time AVCA first-team libero and Pac-12 libero of the year.
This was certainly the case in a back-and-forth first two sets where the Trojans were kicking themselves in the foot against the Huskies (USC lost first set 23-25 and then won the second 25-23), nevertheless the score was tied before things took a turn for the worst in the closing acts of the contest.
"The third set is a big problem for us, we have to solve this," Haley suggested after the match, in which his Trojans lost to Washington for the first time since 2010. "I'm gonna need the players' assistance to do that."
Luckily for this program, Haley's 37 years of coaching experience has brought a slew of ups and downs including four NCAA Division I women's national championships and six junior college national titles while also faltering in six national semifinal appearances, feeling the pain of being just one win away from the title match.
What makes the USC Women's Volleyball program special, besides the tremendous talent that diligently prepares each and every gameday, is an overriding philosophy towards sustained success bleeding straight from the Cardinal and Gold.
"It's really perfect, but you hate to say that cause you hate to lose one set or even one match. We have to use this to our advantage for the players to raise the level of effort, focus and intensity," Haley proposed as the message he will preach moving forward after Sunday night's loss.
In the grand scheme of things the Trojans actually put up a good fight against Washington, but the fact Haley preached to his players that losing (but understanding why) is a part of the process, makes you marvel at how dangerous this team will ultimately become. Haley was also quick to point out that during the grind of the Pac-12 scheule, it's really about learning to play through adversity even when things aren't falling your way.
Like many of the collegiate teams on campus, USC's Women's Volleyball team will face the real challenges of a heavy slate of games, plenty of academic exams and only two days of class to work with this week. The Trojans will now travel up north to prepare for the Stanford Cardinal (8-2 in Pac-12 play), looking to repeats last meetings 3-0 set victory at USC.
"I really have to give them time to study and get their bodies strong," Haley said, describing the upcoming road trip with games against Stanford (Wednesday) and California (Friday) that cut right into the school week. "I've told the team as much as they hate losing, and as much as I hate losing, this is an opportunity."
Choosing not to overwork his players during the post-midterm season and awkward weekday road schedule that is coming up, Haley played a card from memories past for this fledgling roster. After coaching in such a difficult conference for now his 13th season, Haley recognizes that among other things, rest and recovery can sometimes be the best cure for an ailing record during the middle portion of the season.
"This is the hardest part of the year for student athletes. They all wanna study, they all want A's at the end of the semester, and they all want to win NCAA titles," these were just some of the goals Haley's players hold.
Sometimes what gets lost in the conversation of national championships, upcoming games and Monday morning quarterbacking in NCAA Athletics is the concrete fact that these players are truly student athletes. This mantra which is preached heavily among the non-revenues (not bashing the revenue sports by any means) transforms the aches and pains of a difficult stretch into yet another stepping stone for these ultra-competitive Women of Troy.
Much of the season is left to play but with Haley guiding his players on the path towards success on and off the court, this balanced group of Trojans will certainly be prime for another deep postseason run this December.