San Diego took its lumps early in the preseason as losses to Hawai’i, Washington, Nebraska and UC Santa Barbara — all in the NCAA Tournament — left the Toreros 7-4.
But when the West Coast Conference season began, San Diego — back in the NCAA Tournament for the 10th year in a row — hit on all cylinders. It beat favorite BYU (also in the tournament) twice and lost only at Pepperdine. The Toreros, who have won nine in a row since that October 24 defeat, went 17-1 in the WCC and won the league outright for the first time since 2013.
Now they could get another crack at Hawai’i, again on the Rainbow Wahine’s home court. Hawai’i, the No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, faces Big Sky-winner Northern Colorado and the winner gets the winner of USD (24-5) vs. Washington State (23-9), an NCAA at-large from the Pac-12 who was one of the last four teams inserted into the 64-team bracket.
“Frankly, I don’t know that much about Washington State,” USD coach Jennifer Petrie said. “They had a great win against Washington (to end the regular season), but we will have to catch up for sure because it’s not a team I’m familiar with.”
The Cougars have spent much of the season in the 20s in the AVCA Division I Coaches Poll and are No. 23 in the final regular-season ranking. USD is No. 20 and Hawai’i is No. 18. Clearly, it’s a tough foursome.
Petrie, named the WCC coach of the year for the sixth time, is in her 21st year at San Diego. The Toreros have earned NCAA tournament berths in 19 of those 21 years and she has a career record of 413-150.
“Jen brings emotion to the team, she really wants us to play with pride and for the program and for the school,” said Spanish senior Anna Newsome, who is the WCC setter of the year.
Petrie’s associate head coach is Brent Hilliard, in his 18th season with the Toreros. The former NCAA player of the year for Long Beach State, who won a national title in 1991, also was on the USA team that won bronze in the 1992 Olympics.
“He is a tremendous part of our coaching staff,” Petrie said. “I want to say that he’s the best kept secret, but he’s not a secret.
“Everyone knows his volleyball knowledge, the way he trains, the dedication he has to the team. He is invested, just as he would be if he was the head coach. I really see us as equals in what we do, and the fact that he’s been at USD for so long, the loyalty has been phenomenal and outstanding, and we wouldn’t be the same team if he wasn’t here.”
“They really complement each other super well,” senior Megan Jacobsen said. They’re definitely very different in coaching style. Brent is very technical and all about what to do and how to do it, but Jen’s the one that provides the emotional support and gets us through the ruts with that easy, calm-headed demeanor.”
One coaching move they made this season was switching from a 6-2 to a 5-1, letting Newsome run the show. Petrie pointed out that right side Grace Frohling, named the WCC freshman of the year, benefitted from the move.
“She went from not playing at all the beginning of the season to being an instrumental player for us,” Petrie said.
“And Anna really matured a lot in the season and became apparent that she was running a very diverse and extremely difficult offense to stop,” Petrie said.
Thana Fayad, a senior outside from Victoria, British Columbia, who missed the past two seasons with injuries, leads in kills with 280 (2.89/set), has 24 aces and is second on the team with 242 digs (2.49/set).
“Thana’s the kid that has mentally had to overcome the fact that she’d been out for two seasons off the court, not competing, getting her confidence back as the six-rotation outside hitter,” Petrie said. “She gained a lot of confidence as the season went on as well, and having her back and her desire, her passion to play I think helps the whole team.”
Added Jacobsen, “She carries such a confident and really fiery, intense energy on the court. I know she’s always there and I can count on her to put the ball away.”
Jacobsen, a middle from Lakewood, Washington, has 273 kills (2.65/set), is hitting .411, and has 80 blocks, 10 solo.
“Megan Jacobson helps that decision-making process that we developed through the year,” Petrie said. “She became such a terminal middle and often led our team in kills, and her hitting percentage was over .400. I mean the kid was really a big piece of our puzzle this year. So, it took us a while to put people in the right places and run the right offense, but we have a lot of really good pieces, and they continue to compete every day. We have a lot of people that can come in and get the job done.”
Katie Lukes, a sophomore outside from San Clemente, California, has 273 kills (2.94/set).
“We moved her next to the center in the O1 spot because she’s terminal, and if you don’t take care of her, she’ll tear apart your team, that’s for sure,” Petrie said. “She’s got to be somebody that is the focus for anybody that we play because she has a lot of shots, she’s got a lot of range, and she’s got a lot of speed and power.”
The 6-foot-5 Frohling, who is from Los Angeles, has 237 kills (2.58/set), 60 blocks and 26 aces. Frohling’s maturation provided her an opportunity on the right, replacing Roxie Wiblin in the front row, a junior outside from Berkeley, California, with 145 kills and 27 aces.
Lauren Turner, a freshman from Edina, Minnesota, leads with 106 blocks, 19 solo, and has 139 kills, hitting .367.
“With losing Addie Picha last year in the middle and then having Lauren Turner have to come in and start on the court as a freshman, I wasn’t sure how that was going to go,” Petrie admitted. “She has been a great contributor to our team and also hits a very high hitting percentage as well as leads our team in blocks.
“She’s come along very quickly, and I’m super excited for her growth and future. The best decision we ever made was redshirting her last year and keeping her for an extra year.”
Newsome, the product of Barcelona, is averaging 9.51 assists, has a team-high 31 aces, 84 kills, 31 blocks, and is third in digs with 240.
“I love playing with Anna,” Jacobsen said. “She makes all the right set choices, really mixes up our offense, and we can go to her. She knows when she can get the ball down, she’s a really smart player. She always knows what to do and good match-ups against our hitters versus other blockers.
“I think overall just she’s a very mature player. She knows what she’s doing and that’s why she’s so great and confident and fit on the court.”
The digs leader is Annie Benbow, a sophomore from Frisco, Texas, who has 365 (3.51/set). She became a full-time libero this year.
“Annie is certainly one of our key contributors and played as a defensive specialist last year, but her development in taking over that libero position this year and the confidence that she built through the season, she’s certainly our strongest serve-receive passer,” Petrie said.
“She has mastered a lot of different spots on defense. At first she was like ‘I’m not used to playing left back,’ and we put our liberos in left back, and I think she’s finally very comfortable in her role and defensively on the court.”
San Diego has reached the NCAA tourney round of 16 four times, in 2004, 2006, 2013, and last year, when the Toreros upset Cal Poly and then USC on its home court before getting swept by Wisconsin.
“The team culture for USD has really been passed down year by year, and this year is no exception. Our seniors have done a really tremendous job,” Petrie said.
“The thing that’s standard is the work ethic and expectations and the goal setting, and there’s no drop off in what they expect from year after year. They always want to be fighting for that conference championship. They always want to be in the NCAA Tournament and make deep runs. They would love to see themselves get past the sweet 16 and go places we’ve never gone before.
“The thing that I’m always most proud of is the fact that their year-to-year expectations always exceed what they’ve been in the past.”