Enjoy this Premium story on VolleyballMag.com
What a transformation.
At this time last year, USC was finishing up an 8-20 season. Now, the fifth-ranked Trojans are 17-9 as they head into Thursday’s MPSF semifinal match with arch-rival UCLA. No matter the outcome, USC has had the biggest positive turnaround of any team playing NCAA Division I-II men’s volleyball this season.
Consider that USC is the only team to beat top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Long Beach State, went 12-0 at home, and is coming off an MPSF sweep of Grand Canyon this past Saturday night.
So how good are the Trojans?
“Philosophically, that’s a great question,” responded Jeff Nygaard, 46-62 since he took over as head coach four years ago.
“How good can we be? We came into this gym and played the No. 1 team in the country, and we played a really solid game of volleyball. The sky’s the limit when you talk about potential, what this team can do.
“It’s a question of preparing, knowing, and volleyball IQ. Getting yourself into that moment, knowing what we can do, what we should do, and how to do it and then executing. And that’s a lot, but as you’re saying, we’re getting hot now, and that’s when you want to get hot, so what I’m seeing is a group of young men who are taking it on and deciding that great things are in their future.”
That starts with the third-seeded Trojans playing UCLA for a third time this season. The Bruins, seeded second in the MPSF tourney and coming off a victory over Concordia, swept USC on February 24. Then at USC on April 6, the Trojans rallied to win a five-set match 19-25, 25-15, 14-25, 25-20, 15-11.
USC hasn’t made the MPSF title match since 2012 when it lost to eventual national-champion UC Irvine (now in the Big West). USC got an at-large bid that year, beat Lewis in the semifinals and then lost to UCI in the NCAA title tilt.
That was seven years ago, however. More recently, USC built some confidence at the end of last season despite its record, winning an MPSF quarterfinal match over Pepperdine before falling to BYU.
“We just got our confidence going. Last year we definitely weren’t living up to our full potential, and this year we just know we have a bunch of guys on this team that can go against anyone,” said USC senior Jack Wyett, an outside from Laguna Beach.
“It’s one of those things where you face someone at the net, and you realize that no one’s better than you, and that you can do a lot of damage. We’re just playing with the utmost confidence right now and we’re hoping to continue that going forward when we play UCLA on Thursday. That’s going to be a good match.”
This season USC’s resume includes victories over UC Irvine, EIVA winner Princeton, Pepperdine, Stanford, and, of course, the shocking sweep of Long Beach on March 23. It was USC’s first victory over a top-ranked team since early in the 2013 season.
“It’s really a summation of a lot of different things,” said Ryan Moss, a 6-foot-8 senior opposite from Corona del Mar, Calif. “Our new strength coach, Curtis Schulte, fires us up for every match, we have a new assistant in Greg Walker, he’s put in a ton of time and given us a lot of effort, and we have a lot of guys returning from last year.
“We have bit more experience under our belts, and it really all came together nicely. It’s Nygaard’s fourth year, we’re a bit more comfortable as a program, and we were able to win on our home court this year. That was good to see.”
Assistant coach Gary Sato, who joined Nygaard when he took over, sees that the Trojans are reaping the rewards of old-fashioned hard work.
“The thing is, we’ve been working so hard from the very beginning,” Sato said. “The sky’s the limit. We’re playing real well right now. Teams have to pay attention.
“The seniors, they have a sense of urgency. They were able to communicate that with the younger players. They worked hard and they were good examples. They made up their minds.”
As with most organizations, culture change starts at the top. Nygaard, who served as an assistant under former head coach Bill Ferguson for five seasons, is a three-time Olympian in indoor and beach volleyball.
Nygaard, a 6-8 middle, was a tremendous player.
He was the NCAA’s top player for UCLA in 1994 and ’95, played professionally in Greece, Croatia, France, and Turkey, and has eight victories on the beach, seven domestically and one international.
“Jeff’s a great guy to play for,” Wyett said. “He’s got a very cerebral way to relay information to us, which is a great way to play. I’ve never played with a coach that works that way,
“Usually most coaches have more of a screaming, rah-rah mentality, but this is great because you can just have a civil conversation with him on the sideline as to what you need to do, rather than just having pure emotion, and I think that’s a blessing as well. He’s a great coach to play for and I really enjoy it.”
“He’s analytical, he’s strategical, he lets you know what you need to know in a calm demeanor,” Moss said. “He’s a fair coach, and we know what we’re going to get with Nygaard. Every night he’s consistent. And when you have that consistency from your coach it can help you a lot.”
Sato has plenty of top-level coaching experience of his own. Sato has assisted with the USA men’s national team during stints from 1984-1988, 1992, and 2009-2012. He was named the most valuable coach at the 1984 FIVB World Cup.
He’s also been the head coach of the Pepperdine’s women’s team from 1979 to 1982 and head coach of the Japanese men’s national team in 2013.
“Sato’s amazing,” Wyett said. “Sato’s one of the best people I’ve ever met. He’s the guy that everyone knows they can go to with anything, and he’s a great coach, I think he has the highest volleyball IQ out of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s been around the game for god knows how long now, he’s just a great person to have in the gym.”
The USC starting seven includes four seniors, Moss, Wyett, Gianluca Grasso and Matt Douglas. They are complemented by three sophomores, Chris Hall, Kyle Gear, and Sam Lewis.
“We’ve had a lot of senior leadership,” Nygaard said. “They have a lot of physicality, they’ve gelled, they’ve figured out an identity that shows up on court.”
Moss, one of USC’s co-captains, received first-team All-MPSF selection honors and leads the Trojans with 324 kills this year, 3.72 kills/set.
“Ryan is such a great player,” Wyett said. “He can shut down any outside, he’s a 6-8 massive blocker, but at the same time he’s a dynamic hitter. He’s got a great serve, he’s a great defender, he’s the whole package. I think he’s the best opposite in the country right now. He’s playing at a level where no one can stop him. It’s a blessing to have him on our team.”
Wyett, the second co-captain, missed 2016 and 2017, citing burnout, but returned with renewed vigor in this season. He’s second on the team in kills (308), kills/set (3.62), and points (352). Wyett was also named to the MPSF first team.
It’s not lost on his teammates what he’s done after taking two years off.
“We respect all the effort that he puts in as a fifth year senior,” Moss said. “It’s not always easy when your graduating class leaves and you stay behind with a new team. He’s been a great leader and player for us all year.”
Grasso, an undersized 6-2 outside from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who played at Orange Coast College, is a dynamic leaper with a tough serve. The MPSF second-teamer leads the team with 21 aces and has a third-best 280 points this year.
“Gianluca Grasso is exciting,” Nygaard said. “He’s fun, and powerful, and explosive.”
Matt Douglas, a senior 5-10 libero from Pacific Palisades, Calif., leads the Trojans in digs with 155, and boasts a .740 receiving percentage.
“Matt Douglas is the calming guy out there,” Nygaard said. “He keeps things chill, he has the strongest sense of self on the team.”
Chris Hall, a 6-2 setter, has 1,040 assists for a 11.95 assists/set average and has 108 digs. USC has hit .330 this season.
“Chris Hall has figured out the persona to lead these guys and distribute the ball the way we want him to,” Nygaard said. “Our hitting percentage as a team has escalated because of a lot of the things that he’s doing.”
Sam Lewis, a 6-10 sophomore middle from Long Beach, possesses more experience than his class would indicate. Lewis served as captain of the 2018 USA Volleyball junior national team that took fourth at the NORCECA U21 championships in Havana, Cuba. He also participated in the FIVB U19 World Championship in Bahrain. He has 74 kills, is hitting .361, and leads USC with 64 blocks, nine solo.
“Sam Lewis is on such an upward trajectory of what he can do,” Nygaard said. “You use the word potential, but he continues to expand his potential.”
The other middle is Kyle Gear, a 6-8 sophomore from Rochester, N.Y. His brother Kevin played middle at Penn State is now playing professionally. Gear leads USC with a .397 hitting percentage and has 68 kills, 11 aces, and 41 blocks, six solo.
It all adds up to what USC is the right combination to win another MPSF playoff match or two, and, if doesn’t, hoping for an at-large NCAA bid.
“It’s now or never,” Wyett declared.