USC is in a position to make run at the NCAA championship this upcoming season and coach Bill Feeguson knows it.
Feeguson in a recent interview with Off the Block said the Trojans have embraced the high preseason expectations surrounding the team.
Check out the interview with Ferguson as coach discussions the Trojans’ potential of winning a national title, the development of All-American setter Micah Christenson and several off-season changes.
Off the Block: Coach last time we saw USC your teams was battling BYU in a pretty entertaining MPSF Tournament quarterfinals match. What has this off-season been like for the Trojans?
Bill Ferguson: It’s been one of the better off-seasons we’ve had. We’ve got a group now that is very together, very much on the same page. Our leadership is excellent. It’s probably the best leadership group that we’ve had here since the 2010-11 season. When I say leadership, I mean our captains and our influencers on the team are all on the same page and all have the right idea in mind of what we want to do. It’s been a great training block so far.
OTB: Talking about some of those senior leaders on your team, most people start with Micah Christenson. What was your feeling as his coach getting to see him play this summer with the U.S. Men’s National Team for the FIVB World League and most recently the FIVB World Championships?
BF: It was really cool. I was able to see not just Micah but Riley [McKibbin], Murphy [Troy] and Tony [Ciarelli] play against Iran at the Galen Center. That was probably the highlight just to see all four of those guys on the court together. Four USC First-Team All-Americans on the floor for the U.S. … So to have those five SC guys wearing the American flag in our building and to get a win and have the crowd be so boisterous as they were. It was a really special night for USC volleyball. That was really cool in and of itself. To follow the team and watch the World League win was extraordinary. … It was pretty great to have one of your guys that you worked with go and be on the top stage [at the World Champiosnhips] and on the highest level of his craft.
OTB: How good do you think Christenson can be with USC during his senior season?
BF: I think it’s safe to say he is the best setter in the United States. That’s not just collegiately. I think he is capable of doing some extraordinary things. I think he has the ability to have a season that we haven’t seen from a setter in a long time.
OTB: There was some speculation among fans that Christenson could opt to go pro early and forego his senior season. Was that ever a concern for you and did you two ever have a conversation about him going pro instead of coming back to USC?
BF: We talked very openly and very often. Micah is a very intelligent young man, and he understands the process. We were in constant communication about that. He in the end chose to stay in school and finish his senior year. He had some opportunities to go play professionally that were very attractive and good situations. We were prepared for that. I was as a coach. At the end of the day, these guys are coming to college to prepare for the next stage in their professional lives whether it’s in business, arts and in Micah’s case a professional volleyball career. That’s what he’s here for. I think in this country a lot of attention is paid to student-athletes that have that opportunity. Nobody talks about the business major that gets offered a management position in a Fortune 500 company in his sophomore or junior year of college. That’s essentially the same thing in this world. So for us, that’s part of our job, to prepare our student-athletes for the next step. Micah came in here as an immensely talented young man. We’re very proud of the progress he’s made since he’s been here. He’s kind of helped perpetuate the whole Setter U thing here at USC.
OTB: Looking at a couple other of your student-athletes returning for next season, outside attacker Lucas Yoder is entering his sophomore season after putting up big offensive numbers as a freshman. What improvements have you seen from Yoder during the off-season and preseason?
BF: Lucas worked in the off-season primarily on his fitness and his stamina. He probably lost weight, which we will have to put back. But, it’s going to be more from a platform of his stamina and fitness has skyrocketed and now it’s going to be to put some mass back on him so he can improve on his explosiveness. His volleyball IQ is obviously through the roof. For us, it’s going to be refining technique and improving physicality.
OTB: We’ve talked about Yoder and Christenson, but have there been any other players who have positively surprised you so far during the preseason?
BF: We’ve actually had several. Our libero Brooks Varni has had a fantastic off-season. He played a fairly significant amount of time his true-freshman year when [Henry] Cassiday was still on the mend. He gained a lot of experience, and last year he was able to take a step back and watch Cassiday do his thing. This year Brooks will be the incumbent. He is going to compete with Vinnie Rios and Riley Mallon. All three of those guys are dynamite in their own right. Brooks has not only had an impact as a player on the court but an impact off the court in a positive way. Our two outside hitters Christopher Orenic and Alex Slaught have also been playing fantastic this fall. Those two have been fantastic for us. They are passing the ball very well. Both are very good servers. And those two are very good attackers. Then the last piece of that puzzle is Christian Rivera. He appears to be on his way to realizing that potential he had when he came in as a freshman. He has a higher level of focus, a higher level of intensity and his level of execution has been great as an all-around player. His serving has increased. His attacking range has increased. His overall physicality has increased.
OTB: You have so many returning players and so many teams that finished ahead of you last year in the MPSF lost key players. Is there a confidence among your players and coaching staff that USC can win the conference this year?
BF: We go into every year thinking that. At SC we’re able to recruit some high caliber student-athletes. This year going into it in particular, you look at the cycle as you mentioned of the other teams in the league. You can look at it on paper. We now have a team that is older and more experienced. I think obviously Pepperdine finished in a tie for first in the MPSF and they are going to be the lead dogs going into the season. Hawai’i returns a bunch of key impact guys. So does Santa Barbara. There is a thought that we are on the upper-end of our cycle, but at the end of the day we have to go out and play good volleyball. We’ve got too much respect for the other coaches and programs in this league to really get excited about things on paper.
OTB: With your team this preseason, what is going to be your big area of emphasis as we begin to into the exhibition matches and get closer to the start of the season?
BF: We’re placing a pretty heavy emphasis on serving the ball. We always have, but we’ve put even more emphasis in that this fall. We haven’t been where we want to be serving the ball the last two seasons. Part of that is youth and physical strength, and then part of it is experience. We think we’ve gained some age, gained some physical strength and gained some experience. Now we are trying to accelerate our training in that department. Blocking is another key to our focus in the off-season. We’re changing some things with the way we do our blocking.
OTB: With the blocking changes is it going to be more technical or game-planning changes?
BF: It’s both. Just a little bit of more technical and tactical freedom. Obviously blocking is a byproduct of serving. Our blocking numbers have been the down the last two years and that’s because our serving numbers have been down the last two years.
OTB: Looking at your 2015 non-conference, you play home matches against Penn State and Lindenwood and have a road match against Grand Canyon. From your standpoint, was that non-conference schedule influenced by the selection committee’s at-large bid decision last season or did you not worry about the selection criteria?
BF: Honestly, it came because of having one less team in the league and us having the ability to schedule the matches without hurting our bottom-line as far as matches and giving our student-athletes time off and to be prudent with our training. We always want to try to play non-conference matches. I think it’s good for the game. Since I’ve been here Mark Pavlik and I have always tried to make sure that USC and Penn State play each other somehow and some way. We were able to do that in 2012. With the addition of an extra team in our league the last few years, it’s made scheduling non-conference teams difficult. We were able to get Penn State back on the schedule this year. Us, Ohio State and Penn State have been talking and we anticipate playing each other over the next several years. I think it’s great for the game when you have three major teams from the big five conferences playing each other. You get East Coast, Midwest and West Coast all involved. I think it’s wonderful for the game. There’s a little bit of an SC connection over at Lindenwood with [coach] Kris [Dorn’s] wife Jennifer Paul who was an All-American middle blocker here. That was an easy conversation to have. They wanted to come home to LA to play a match here. So that worked out great. [Grand Canyon coach] Jeremy [Price] and I have worked together the last several years with USA Volleyball. … Logistically it worked out, and timing-wise it worked out. So we were thrilled to get them. It helps us in getting a match early in the year. … I think it’s just a win-win all the way around. We are going to try to schedule non-conference. I grew up going to the Collegiate Classic every year in the spring. I would get to see a Penn State or a Ball State or an Ohio State come out and play against SC and UCLA and the other big programs out here. That had a great impact on me when I was younger. I intend to continue to perpetuate that as much as I possibly can.