USC Men's Volleyball 2017 Season Outlook

    Jeff Nygaard
    Dec. 28, 2016

    Sustainably great.

    That is what second-year USC men’s volleyball head coach Jeff Nygaard wants his team to become.

    But Nygaard understands that bringing the Trojans back to the championship level that is their heritage requires patience, time and a plan.

    Last spring, he set out on that task by beginning to instill a culture within the program of being sustainably great. He stressed raised expectations and improved physicality, competitiveness and volleyball IQ.

    Still, his debut 2016 squad dropped its first 6 matches (the slowest start in team history) and managed to go just 7-19 overall, including an 11th place finish in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation at 5-17.

    The rebuilding process continues in 2017, but Nygaard expects marked improvement in all phases this year. “We continue to progress toward establishing a culture of being a sustainably great team,” said Nygaard, who spent 5 seasons as a USC assistant before becoming the head coach. “From last year to this year, we have evolved tremendously in learning what it takes to achieve success. We will be a much better team than the past few years and we will challenge every opponent.”

    The 2017 Trojans welcome back 12 lettermen from last year, including at 4 starting spots: 3-year starting middle blocker Andy Benesh, 2-year starting outside hitter Lucas Yoder, opposite hitter Jon Rivera and co-starting setter Gert Lisha. A number of other returning Trojans have key playing experience. All will be joined by a large class of freshmen who will look to make an immediate impact.



    This combination of veterans and youngsters aims to guide the 2017 Trojans back to the NCAA tournament after a 4-year absence (2012 was the third NCAA trip in a 4-year span for a USC program that claims 4 NCAA titles and 14 NCAA tournament appearances).

    “We have strong senior leadership and experience, and I am excited about the potential that our young players bring,” said Nygaard. “When we are on our game, we will be a strong side out team that will do a good job defensively.”

    USC lost just 5 players from last year’s roster: outside hitter Alex Slaught, who was in the starting lineup for much of the past 4 seasons, 2-year starting libero Brooks Varni, current Trojan student assistant coach Josh Kirchner (he started for parts of 3 seasons at opposite hitter and middle blocker) and 2016 part-time starters Tommy Leonard at middle blocker and Jack Yoder (Lucas’ cousin) at setter.

    Benesh and Lucas Yoder, who both could contend for All-American honors this season, highlight USC’s 5-member 2017 senior class. The 6-9 Benesh, who was sidelined for the first 5 matches of 2016 with a back injury, hit .377 last spring with 109 kills, 52 blocks, 37 digs and 15 aces. In his career, the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Men’s Junior National Team performer is hitting .409. He was a 2015 All-American honorable mention choice and will serve as Troy’s captain in 2017. The 6-5 Yoder, one of 6 Yoders to play volleyball at USC, has been the Trojans’ primary attacker when in the lineup and is the team’s top passer. He is a .285 career hitter, with 673 kills and 211 digs (he was the 2014 National and MPSF Freshman of the Year). Last year, he had a team-high 273 kills while hitting .266 and he added 96 digs and 33 blocks as he made All-MPSF honorable mention.

    “Andy earned the captaincy because of his talent, energy, voice and the respect he has from his peers,” said Nygaard. “He has made his health a priority this year and is stronger than he has ever been, and that will help him lead our team and play at an All-American level. Lucas will be asked to contribute significantly this year. He not only can handle the workload of being our go-to hitter, but he eagerly embraces that. He has the skill set of an All-American and is the most naturally-gifted passer that we’ve had here in a long time.”

    Troy’s other seniors are 6-3 outside hitter Christopher Orenic, who has 23 career starts (he started 3 times and saw action in 18 matches in 2016, getting 42 kills), 6-5 setter Michael Mullahey, who has started 5 matches at USC (he was sidelined for the first 20 matches of 2016 with a knee injury) and 5-9 libero Vinnie Rios, who has 29 digs while appearing in 20 matches in his Trojan career (including 11 digs in 14 matches in 2016).

    “There is no bigger optimist on our team than Christopher,” said Nygaard. “He continues to raise the ceiling on his ability through hard work and determination. Michael brings veteran experience and leadership to our team. He is an invaluable part of our squad due to his voice and maturity. Nobody gives more to our program than Vinnie with his work on and off the court. He has become comfortable with his role.”

    USC’s only other upperclassmen on its 21-man roster are a pair of 6-6 juniors: Rivera of Puerto Rico, a 2016 starter when he posted 170 kills, 80 digs and 24 blocks, and former Lewis transfer Lisha, who started half of 2016’s matches (he missed most of the season’s first month with a broken hand) and posted 378 assists, 31 digs and 15 blocks. Lisha gained valuable international experience this past summer when he played for his native Albania in the 2016 CEV European League.

    “Jon is a passionate, committed, all-in player,” said Nygaard. “He is a hard worker and has the strongest arm on the team. Gert benefitted from his international experience over the summer by getting to play high-level volleyball. He now brings that to our team and helps keep us focused on maintaining our standards.”

    The remaining two-thirds of USC’s roster is composed of sophomores (5) and redshirt (1) or first-year freshmen (8).

    Of the sophs, 6-8 outside hitter Ryan Moss is the most experienced, with 6 starts among his 21 match appearances last spring (he had 57 kills, 36 digs and 19 blocks). Then there are 6-3 outside hitter Woody Cook, who had 5 starts while playing in 11 matches last year and getting 40 kills and 33 digs, and 5-10 libero Matt Douglas, who had 22 digs in 11 matches last season and then spent the summer helping the U.S. Junior National Team win a gold medal at the 2016 NORCECA U21 Continental Championship. The other sophomores are 6-6 middle blocker Connor Inlow, who hit .393 with 14 kills in 8 matches (with 4 starts) in 2016, and 6-4 outside hitter Blake Markland, who saw limited action in 5 matches last season but whose play has improved noticeably since then.

    “Ryan continues to improve, become more physical and understand what it takes to be successful in our league,” said Nygaard. “He has accepted the challenge of taking a leadership role on our team. Woody is a solid player who is good at all aspects of the game. He continues to grow his game. Matt benefitted from his experience with the U.S. program this summer and came back playing at a higher level. He is more physical and confident now. Connor has outstanding leadership qualities and has earned his teammates’ respect as a hard worker and straight shooter. He takes on every challenge with fierce dedication and a no-fear attitude. Blake came into this season dedicated to making an impact. I expect him to be a key contributor because of his ability to pass, defend and hit.”

    Tyler Resnick, a 6-8 middle blocker, redshirted last year as a freshman.

    “Tyler is a fiery, all-in player who never stops giving his all,” said Nygaard. “He maximizes what he has.”

    Several first-year Trojan freshmen could contribute in 2016, most notably 6-4 opposite hitter Aaron Strange of San Clemente (Calif.) High, whose sister, Alexa, was part of the USC women’s beach program that captured a pair of national championships, and 6-7 middle blocker-opposite hitter Lucas Lossone of Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach (Calif.), a 2016 AVCA prep All-American first teamer whose mother, Cica Baccelli of Brazil, was an All-Pac-10 player at USC in the early 1990s.

    “Aaron is an incredible athlete,” said Nygaard. “He is on a steep learning curve, but he improves on a daily basis. Lucas is one of our most physical blockers. He works hard and loves the game. We believe both of them will contribute this year.”

    USC’s other true frosh are 5-8 libero Michael Chang of Beckman High in Irvine (Calif.), a 2016 All-CIF Division I first team pick, 6-3 setter Matt Faraimo of Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego (Calif.), a 2016 All-CIF San Diego first teamer (he has a relative who played football at USC), 6-8 middle blocker Matt Hassel of Bay Shore (N.Y.) School, who was a member of the 2015 U.S. Boys Youth Continental Team, 6-5 outside hitter Sean Morrissey of Huntington Beach (Calif.) High, a 2016 AVCA prep All-American first team and All-CIF Division I first team honoree, 6-2 opposite hitter Jackson Wedbush of Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach (Calif.), another 2016 All-CIF Division I first team selection, and late addition 6-7 Jackson Barrett of Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough (Calif.).

    “Michael is a highly-intelligent and hard-working player who is developing his role with our team,” said Nygaard. “He represents the best about USC athletically and academically. Matt (Faraimo) takes a very level-headed approach to the game, is very coachable, works hard and is a good player. He filled in setting for us in fall competition and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Matt (Hassel) puts in the work, listens to his coaches and wants to improve in every aspect of the game. He is developing into an MPSF blocker. Sean is a physical, explosive, poised player with a world of potential and a good future. I’m excited to watch him progress. Jackson (Wedbush) is one of our best all-around players and is a great server. He has a team-first mindset. Jackson (Barrett) ran through walls to become part of our team after fall practice, which earned the players’ respect. He continues to develop as he fast tracks his acclimatization to our program.”

    Nygaard, along with full-time assistant coaches Gary Sato and Todd Hollenbeck, will lead USC through a challenging schedule. Early on, the Trojans will participate in the AVCA Showcase Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge against defending NCAA champion Ohio State on its home floor (site of the 2017 NCAA tourney) and Penn State, and then they’ll jump right into the always-tough MPSF slate.

    “I am looking forward to the 2017 season and seeing how our team responds to the work put in during the fall, from a physical standpoint, a technique standpoint and a mindset standpoint,” said Nygaard. “I believe we are moving in the right direction to becoming sustainably great.”