Volleyball enters 2019 season with fresh talent

first_img“We have to wake up really early in the season and see who we are,” All-American senior outside hitter Khalia Lanier said. “It’ll be really exciting to play these great [competitors] and see what we can do early on and just get better from there.” One bright spot for the Trojans last year was setter Raquel Lázaro, but even after winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors, the talented sophomore still sees plenty of room for improvement. USC women’s volleyball enters the 2019 season with some fresh faces following last season’s upsetting finish. The No. 21 Trojans placed third in the Pac-12 with a 13-7 conference record yet failed to emerge from the second round of the NCAA tournament.  Lázaro proved herself as the team’s leading setter with 1,402 assists last year; the next closest Trojan had just 123. However, she is not taking her success for granted. Heading into the two-a-day practices, Lázaro feels like she has to earn her job in each workout and has her sights set on the Pac-12 Setter of the Year award. The Trojans stumbled toward the end of the regular season in 2018, narrowly defeating a subpar UCLA squad they swept in the conference opener. Friday’s game will begin at 5 p.m., and Sunday’s is set for an 11 a.m. start. “For me, it wasn’t that good of a season, and I think I can do a lot better,” Lázaro said.  The Trojans will have their first opportunity to show off that depth this Friday against Texas State in San Marcos, Texas. The Bobcats posted an impressive 27-7 record last season, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing in three sets to Texas. Texas State enters the season unranked despite receiving six votes in the AVCA coaches poll.  The Trojans have brought in two liberos, freshman Keila Barra and graduate Abril Bustamante — the latter of whom plays for the beach volleyball team — to replace recent graduates Victoria Garrick and Reni Meyer-Whalley. Barra and Bustamante will be expected to step up quickly as the Trojans need a solid back row against tough competition early this season. Senior outside hitter Khalia Lanier serves the volleyball against Cal last season. As a senior, Lanier will be a mentor for the team’s new players. (Tal Volk/Daily Trojan) “I know it will be difficult [to win the award],” Lázaro said. “But I want to be the best I can be for my team.” “Establishing trust with [the coaches] throughout the spring was a really big growing period,” Lanier said. “They are giving us a bigger hand in what we want to do and where we want to take this team.” Head coach Brent Crouch is returning for his second year with USC and is focused on building chemistry between the players and coaching staff well before the season gets underway.  The Trojans will have very little time to get over any potential early-season rust, as they face three top-20 opponents in their first five matches of the year. After the contest with the Bobcats, USC will travel to Austin for a Sunday matchup with an elite Texas squad that enters the season ranked No. 4 in the AVCA coaches poll. The Longhorns are coming off a 2018 season that saw them go 23-5 and earn a spot in the NCAA quarterfinals.  Along with Barra and Bustamante, USC brought in junior opposite Candice Denny and freshman outside hitter Emilia Weske to round out its roster heading into the season. The newcomers should help strengthen a roster that lacked depth during an injury-plagued 2018. “We [added] another exceptional group of student-athletes to our already loaded 2019 class and are now two- to three-deep at every position on the court,” Crouch said in a June interview with USC Athletics. “I expect the level of competition in practice to soar and [for us] to be able to absorb the inevitable injuries that are a part of the game. Each of the players in this group exhibits the skill, athleticism, intelligence and character standards that we hold for the Trojan Family.” Lanier compared the roster to the 2017 team that advanced to the NCAA regional match against Florida.  “I think having a deep roster is really important,” Lanier said. “We have a lot of transfers and freshmen coming in, so for the returners it’s really good to have our limits pushed by these new people, learn what we can from them and then teach them our philosophies along the way.” To avoid a similar decline in 2019, the Trojans will have to maintain their physical conditioning through the end of the season.  “Last year at the end of the season, my body wasn’t as well-prepared as it was in the beginning,” Lázaro said. “Now I know at the end of the season I need to prepare my body better. Now I know how I need to prepare myself for each part of the season.”last_img