Q&A with USC coach Bill Ferguson

USC head coach Bill Ferguson could not have picked a better match to honor two former All-American Trojans.

On the same night the Trojans will retire the jerseys of Dusty Dvorak and Celso Kalache, No. 1 USC will play the finale of its two-match weekend series against No. 2 BYU — the first time this season the top two teams in the nation rankings will face each other.

Dvorak’s and Kalache’s jerseys will be retired in a post-match ceremony Saturday. Prior to this ceremony, the Trojans and Cougars will play the opener of their two-match series Friday night. USC enters this weekend series with the best record in the nation and has been No. 1 in the coaches and media poll since the preseason.

Off the Block conducted an interview earlier this week with Ferguson to discuss his team’s success in the first half of the season and the upcoming match between No. 1 and No. 2.

This is the second of two Q&As Off the Block will publish leading up to the BYU and USC series. The first part of this series was a Q&A with BYU interim head coach Rob Neilson

Off the Block: Coach you play No. 2 BYU in a two-match series this weekend. What are your initial thoughts on the match?

Bill Ferguson: It is going to be a great series, as much as we preach to our guys and try to approach every match the same. There could be huge implications down the line. If one team wins both I think that gives them a tremendous advantage going into the end of the season. I think it will be great volleyball and really physical. The first thing that comes to mind when you step foot on the court and see those guys is that they are athletic, and it is fun to see and play those guys. Futi [Tavana] and Austin [Zahn] in the middle going up against each other. [Rob] Stowell and [Murphy] Troy on the outside. Those guys are all standouts. A freshman that has had heck of player at libero for is Henry Cassiday and [freshman Taylor] Sander is doing great things for BYU. [Cougars coach] Rob [Neilson] played club for me in ’97. .. It will be fun being across net from Rob. We both went same high school and have known each other. It will be a lot fun. In addition, Saturday we are retiring Dusty Dvorak and Celso Kalache jerseys. … There will be a lot of alumni at these matches and we’ll have fantastic fan support.

OTB: In talking about the jerseys being retired, did you ever imagine that the ceremony would take place on a night when No. 1 and No. 2 were playing each other?

BF: When we were planning the weekend it was going to land this weekend or the following weekend versus [UC] Irvine. We knew both opponents were going to be really good and either way we were happy to have it on that weekend. We were aware No. 1 versus No. 2 could be a possibility this weekend and what better way to honor those guys that help better our program than by having the best teams in the country playing.

OTB: Any time the top two teams play each other there is some extra hype surrounding the match. Is your team paying any attention to the building up for these matches?

BF: I think it is human nature, no matter how disciplined you are, to let yourself know that this No. 1 versus No. 2. We don’t talk about it in the gym, when watching video or in team meetings. We are discussing what we need to do to win the match. I’m certain both guys on both team have had this weekend in the corner of their eye for the last weeks, and any competitor revels in the opportunity to play the best. And there is that competitiveness on both sides. I’m sure the players are thinking about it.

OTB: Right now statistically your team is one of the best offenses in the nation. What has made your offense successful during the first half of this season?

BF: Our personnel has largely stayed the same from last year. … We had a libero by committee last year, and we now pass the ball much better than last year. That is one thing that is allowing us to do more on offense. We are playing a system that goes faster, and I think that helps. I think also we are just more athletic and mature. We got two juniors, four seniors and a sophomore and a freshman in our starting lineup. We got a pretty veteran lineup, but our passing is the biggest factor. … Someone who people always seem to be missed when talking about our offense is Tri Bourne. He has been the guy that has been silence assassin and has been fantastic this season. So much has been made about Murphy and Tony [Ciarelli] that Tri has really done a fabulous job. We have three pin guys. You can make the case that we have best combination of pin guys. Tri is good and gets overlooked because teams are focusing our other outsides. He is smart and gets the job done.

OTB: Murphy Troy in the first half of this season is among the league leaders in kills and people are saying he is candidate for National Player of the Year. What has he meant to your team this year?

BF:Aside from the things that are tangibles like the kills, blocks and service aces, he is a fantastic young man off the court . He’s a leader verbally and leads on the court and off the court. He and Riley McKibbin have really set the tone this year as senior captains. Murphy has a positive attitude and drive to be the best, and not everyone can see that on a regular basis. Even when things are flat in a gym during a practice and needing to pick everyone up or saying right thing to a guy who is struggling and making him play better. He has a knack to do both those things.

OTB: In looking at BYU, they are leading the nation with about a three block per game average. How does BYU’s defense and blocking compare to other teams you have played this season?

BF: Luckily the stars aligned with our schedule we played Long Beach State last week. That team is similar to BYU in that they go back to the line and serve tough and block well out of system. BYU is better than Long Beach blocking in system. Those teams, though, are the best blocking out of system teams. I don’t know how different it will be for us. It will not be different tactically. What allows them to be good blocking is Futi Tavana. He is so quick laterally and stays balanced on the court and can fire to any pin if he is allowed to sit back and read the play. He does that faster than anyone in country. If you look at the numbers had recorded his 100th block before any other player got to 85, and that is really impressive. He sets the tone and they have some big athletic players and all of them can hit to the pins. [Kevin] Sagers is an older guys as a senior, and Stowell is older. Sander is one of those kids that is unbelievably gifted and as talented as an upperclassman. … If you walk in a gym our guys look physically big compared to the other team, and BYU is the only team that matches up to us physically. See our match, and you can tell both teams like to be in the weight room.

OTB: Has there been any way to simulate how Tavana and the rest of BYU blocks in your practices this week leading up the match?

BF: When we practice we don’t just look at what a team does and try to simulate it. We just have to focus on technique and make adjustments. In our practices we have been focusing on us more than anything and trying to be pretty productive. It’s about 30 percent them and 70 percent on us.

OTB: Last year team was ranked No. 1 and struggled throughout the season finishing No. 7 and sixth place in the MPSF season. However, this year you have almost the exact same lineup and you have been No. 1 since the preseason. Has just been a matter of this team getting that experience last season?

BF: We are by far more mature and that has been huge for our success this year, and part of it is learning how to do that. We are a polarizing school, no matter which sport, and we always bring out the best in everyone no matter where we are in rankings. Everyone always wants to beat up on SC. We deal with that element every week and being No. 1 just magnifies that intensity even more. For us it was good to through that last year and learn that we have to play at a high level of intensity all the time, and learning about being SC and how everyone likes to compete against us. … Another thing is we used to try to scout the heck out of opponent, and we still do some of that. We focus more on our ourselves now.

OTB: One of the things that hasn’t been mentioned too much with the success of your team this season is you having in two new assistant coaches, J.J. Reily and Jeff Nygaard. What role have they played with your team this season?

BF: I think they have played a big part. First of all, they both had success as players, and our guys really respect J.J. and Jeff as players. They connect with guys really well. J.J. and Riley McKibbin are really similar. J.J. played club for me in 1994 and was setting for the 18-under team in the Outrigger. J.J. came up and had ties to Southern Cal and it was not big stretch to get him to come here and play club. He went to Pepperdine and was an All-American on that team. However, what is big about that is he was also trained by the same [setter coach] that trained me. J.J has that bond with me as a player and a coach. I tried to get J.J. to coach for me when Stanford called in 2000 looking for coach before Don Shaw got the job, and I talked to J.J. then about being an assistant. I was in talk with USC in 2002 and J.J. was a guy I was talking to because we had that relationship. Riley McKibbin had a similar recruiting story to J.J. and they played at the same club and high school. Forget about being a great setting coach, J.J. is a guy Riley can relate to as a person. Then for Zaun at middle blocker it’s not often you can have a coach come into the gym and be taller and more experienced than Jeff. For Austin it’s, ‘OK you have done everything I want to do do this game, from winning national championship and being an Olympian, two times indoor and once in sand.’ Between J.J. being All-American at Pepperdine and Jeff’s experience those guys have brought with them a good level of creditability. They are good with their craft and have done a fantastic job. The other guy not to forget is Cameron Green. He was promoted from being our director of operations last year to a volunteer assistant. … He was a guy that understood our guys currently on the team and between the three of them it been a nice good bridge for our players.