2016 USC Men's Volleyball Outlook

    Head coach Jeff Nygaard (c) with captains Brooks Varni (l) and Alex Slaught (r).
    Jan. 5, 2016

    2016 Media Guide Get Acrobat Reader

    For the first time since 2007, there will be a new leader of the USC men’s volleyball program. But it’s a familiar face.

    Jeff Nygaard, a three-time Olympian and two-time College Player of the Year who was a USC assistant the past five years, takes over the Trojans’ head coaching reigns in 2016.

    “I am excited about USC’s future,” said Nygaard, the successor to Bill Ferguson, who guided Troy to three trips to the NCAA Championships, two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season crowns and an MPSF tourney title in his nine years. “We will take the groundwork that was put down here in the past and take it to a championship level, which is where USC’s heritage is and where it belongs.”

    USC claims four NCAA titles and 14 NCAA Final Four appearances in its history. It has produced 18 Olympians, 34 All-American first teamers and seven College Players of the Year.

    “Excellence is the norm at USC,” said Nygaard. “Our focus moving forward is to become sustainably great. We will cultivate a team culture where each player expects more from himself and more from his teammates. Our emphasis in training has been to improve our physicality, our competitiveness and our volleyball IQ. Our players have embraced this challenge.”

    Nygaard inherits 11 returning lettermen, including four starters and the libero, from a 2015 team that went 19-9 overall (15-7 in the MPSF for a fourth place finish). Last year, USC posted seven victories over Top 10 teams, advanced to the MPSF Tourney semifinals (losing a five-set heartbreaker to host UC Irvine) and finished with a No. 7 national ranking. Troy went 8-3 in five-setters in 2015, a USC record for five-set matches and wins.

    Nygaard’s biggest immediate challenge will be replacing two-time All-American and Lloy Ball Award-winning setter Micah Christenson, a four-year starter who is now the U.S. Men’s National Team setter, and three-year starting middle blocker Robert Feathers, who hit .382 in his career with 324 blocks. Also graduated from 2015 are opposite hitter Cristian Rivera (39 career starts, with a third of those last season) and middle blocker Chris Lischke, who started 20 times in his tenure. Outside hitter Larry Tuileta, a 2015 MPSF All-Freshman team selection when he hit .272 with 173 kills and 118 digs, also did not return.

    “Setting the expectations and establishing the culture has been at the top of the to-do list,” said Nygaard, who is assisted by former U.S. Men’s National Team assistant and Japan head coach Gary Sato and 2015 AVCA Division III Coach of the Year Todd Hollenbeck from UC Santa Cruz, along with volunteer assistant Galen Dodd. “This past fall was dedicated to instituting a mindset of success and doing things the right way in all facets of the student-athlete experience. Coupled with that was the dedication to player development, which will go on throughout the season. We want to peak at the end.”

    The 2016 Trojans will feature a mixture of experience and youth, with a reliance on steady passing and improved hitting and blocking.

    USC will be led by 6-9 junior middle blocker Andy Benesh, a two-year starter who spent this past summer competing with both the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team, which won a silver medal at the U21 Pan American Cup and also played in the FIVB U21 World Championships, and the U.S. Men’s National Team that competed in the Pan American Cup. Benesh won 2015 honorable mention All-American and All-MPSF notice while leading USC’s regulars in hitting percentage (.394) and blocks (93) and also getting 160 kills and 45 digs. He is a .419 hitter in his career with 350 kills and 184 blocks. A back injury could slow him early in the 2016 season.

    “Andy came back from his summer experiences knowing what it takes to get to the next level,” said Nygaard. “His dedication to improving will make us a better team.”

    Looking to fill Feathers’ spot as the other middle blocker will be 6-8 senior Tommy Leonard, who has appeared in just 22 matches in his career (with 12 starts, including nine times in 2014), 6-6 redshirt freshman Connor Inlow, who redshirted last spring as an outside hitter, and 6-7 first-year freshman Tyler Resnick out of Newbury Park (Calif.) High, who like USC’s other four new frosh was on the 2015 Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 list.

    “Tommy has shown that hard work can yield results, and he is re-energized and emboldened by the role he is earning,” said Nygaard. “I like how Connor plays without fear and will take the big swing without hesitation. We are working to cultivate Tyler’s competitiveness and he is growing daily into what we need in a middle blocker.”

    A number of players will battle to start on the outside. Alex Slaught, a 6-4 senior, has 50 career starts at outside hitter with 483 kills, 220 digs, 63 blocks and 39 aces. Last year, he earned All-MPSF honorable mention while getting a team-best 284 kills along with 121 digs, 26 blocks and 25 aces (second on USC) and starting 23 times. He played in the 2015 World University Games for the U.S.

    The other outside hitting job was shared last year between Tuileta and 6-3 junior Christopher Orenic, who had 194 kills (second on the team), 101 digs and 20 aces in 2015.

    “Alex is an extremely hard worker and brings experience and physicality to the outside hitter position,” said Nygaard. “Christopher is re-invigorated this year and is the consummate team player who will give his all in whatever he is asked to do.”

    Looking to re-emerge into the outside hitting mix is 6-4 junior Lucas Yoder, who never got untracked in 2015 (he appeared in only 3 matches) after being the 2014 National and MPSF Freshman of the Year when he had a team-best 394 kills while hitting .303, along with 111 digs, 33 blocks and 13 aces. He is one of six Yoders to play at USC, including his late father, Dave.

    “Lucas was the biggest and best surprise of the fall,” said Nygaard. “He is re-dedicated to the game and he is on the path to becoming the type of player he was his freshman year.”

    Then there is a trio of first-year freshman outside hitters: 6-2 Woody Cook of Oak Park (Calif.) High, the 2015 All-CIF Division II Player of the Year (his father, Scott, played for the 1986 Trojans), 6-4 Blake Markland of Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach (Calif.), who earned 2015 prep All-American second team and All-CIF Division I honors, and 6-7 Ryan Moss of Corona del Mar (Calif.) High, a 2015 prep All-American first teamer and All-CIF Division I pick. Cook and Moss might also be used at opposite hitter.

    “Woody is a tough and gritty young, developing player who has bought into the team concept,” said Nygaard. “Blake is a hard worker with a unique capacity for dealing with adversity and he is learning what it takes to contribute at this level. We have high expectations for Ryan, who combines a developing physical presence with good volleyball smarts.”

    Josh Kirchner, a 6-6 senior, has 26 career starts (half last spring at opposite hitter and the others in 2013 at middle blocker). He either will look to start at opposite in 2016 after splitting time there a year ago with the graduated Rivera or he might be used again in the middle. He notched 151 kills (hitting .252), 51 digs and 34 blocks in 2015. But Kirchner will be pushed at opposite not only by Cook and Moss (if they are tried there), but by 6-6 soph Jon Rivera of Puerto Rico (no relation to Cristian), who had 2 starts at opposite hitter in 2015 as a true freshman (he played in only 4 matches overall).

    “As Josh is tapping into the higher levels of his capability, we expect him to be a major contributor this year,” said Nygaard. “With his approach to the game, his physical arm and his terminal mind, I view Jon as the first true opposite at USC since Murphy Troy.”

    Brooks Varni, a 6-2 senior, returns as the starting libero (he had 210 digs in 2015). He and Slaught are the team’s captains. He will be challenged by 5-9 junior Vinnie Rios (his only playing time came in 6 matches last spring) and 5-10 first-year freshman Matt Douglas of Loyola High in Los Angeles (Calif.), a prep All-American and All-CIF Division I honoree last year.

    “Brooks is a veteran libero who is one of our team’s leaders, and he is doing a great job of building this team’s culture on and off the court towards a higher level of success,” said Nygaard. “Vinnie brings a high level of athleticism to the court and has a defensive mentality in which he believes every ball can be dug. Matt is a very talented young player who combines his natural volleyball ability with a confidently calm on-court presence.”

    The task of replacing the talented Christenson at setter will fall to either 6-5 junior Michael Mullahey, a member of 2015 U.S. team at the World University Games who has appeared in 13 matches (with 5 starts) in his USC career as Christenson’s backup, 6-6 sophomore Gert Lisha, a transfer from Lewis who appeared in 26 matches last spring as a backup for the Flyers’ NCAA runnersup squad and who played for his native Albania in the 2013 FIVB World Grand Prix, or 6-3 sophomore Jack Yoder, Lucas’ cousin (he has seen brief action in only one match at USC). Mullahey could be sidelined at the start of the 2016 season with a knee injury.

    “Michael is a tough individual who is growing as a leader and he gained invaluable experience this summer expanding his understanding of the setter position,” said Nygaard. “Gert is a fiery competitor, a physical, passionate, all-in player who is driven to succeed. Jack was one of our most improved players this fall and, in typical Yoder style, he finds a way to get it done.”

    Under Nygaard’s new leadership, the 2016 Trojans—who open their schedule at the Penn State Tournament before jumping into the always-rugged MPSF play—are looking to make it back to the NCAA tourney after a three-year absence (2012 was USC’s third NCAA trip in a four-year span).

    “We have a long way to go to get where we want, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this team can have the success expected of a USC men’s volleyball team,” said Nygaard, who played on a pair of NCAA championship teams at UCLA. “I am looking forward to our journey through the season.”