As the calendar turns to December, the time has come once again for Mick Haley to get USC's women's volleyball team ready for a run at the NCAA Championship. This year, however, he does so with a team surrounded by far more uncertainty than its recent predecessors.
For the past four years, USC has reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, including two Final Four appearances, a conference title, and a record of 118-22 during that span. In all four of those years, they entered the tournament as a ranked team, meaning that they had home court advantage through the first two rounds of the tournament.
This year, though, the Women of Troy are far removed from such success. With a 15-15 record and a tenth place finish in the Pac-12 standings, USC just managed to squeak into the tournament largely on strength of schedule. Instead of spending the first weekend of the tournament at the Galen Center, the team is currently in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, preparing for an opening round match against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. The winner will, barring a huge upset, likely face North Carolina, who come in as the No. 7 seed and the ACC champions.
It has been the toughest year for this program since Haley took over as coach in 2001, and a good part of it could be due to the absence of two recent All-American graduates who were the core of SC's recent success: libero Natalie Hagglund and middle blocker Alexis Olgard.
The two were a major part of the SC defense, holding opposing teams to an attacking percentage of around .180 in 2012 and 2013. This year, opposing attacking percentage has jumped to .240, and the total number of blocks by USC has dropped from 332 in 2013 to 233 in 2014.
Another problem, though, is that injuries throughout the season have hindered the Women of Troy's attempts to find a consistent lineup without Olgard and Hagglund. USC has lost three starters -- outside hitters Ebony Nwanebu and Elise Ruddins and setter Hayley Crone -- to injuries and illnesses at different points this season. The depleted roster has forced Haley to constantly adjust the rotation, particularly after Crone's injury from a headshot taken during a game in October left him with only one starter.
In the meantime, USC saw the home court dominance that had served them so well since moving into the Galen Center suddenly crumble. They went 4-8 at home this year, including getting swept by Florida, UCLA, Washington, and Stanford. In the final stretch of the season, they lost four games in a row, their worst streak since 2009.
But if there has been one silver lining in this disappointing season, it is definitely the rise of Samantha Bricio. The junior outside hitter is now second on USC's all-time points list and has set school and conference records for most career service aces with 206. This week, she also became the 11th Trojan in program history to become a three-time All-Pac-12 selection, and could potentially become a first-team All-American for the second time in her career.
With Bricio at the top of her game and the rest of the squad striving to follow suit, the Women of Troy are set to play the underdog role for the first time in many years and try to topple some of the best in college volleyball to continue their postseason hot streak.
First tip against Coastal Carolina is tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. PST and can be viewed online on ESPN3 or on the WatchESPN app.